Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Spells H-I-T at The Ballard Underground

Also see David's review of Ruined

Kate Jaeger; front row l-r, Ashley Fitzsimmons, Justin Huertas, Kelly Mak; back row l-r, Sarah Petty, Robert Scherzer, William A. Williams
It's a propitious (I had to look up the spelling) collaboration for Contemporary Classics and RK Productions on the first locally produced staging of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the 2005 Tony Award winner (for Best Book). One of a happily growing number of original musicals to find Broadway success this past decade, this production of Bee rates an A for being a much better fit for the show than the Paramount, which swallowed up much of the charm and intimacy of the national tour when it came through a few seasons back. Kate Jaeger, who successfully helmed the Seattle Premiere of Reefer Madness awhile back, directs the show with zeal and honesty, never allowing it to become too broad, and musical director Kim Dare, at the piano with two other musicians, guides a confident and well-suited cast through the occasionally challenging rhythms of William Finn's attractive score.

Finn (Music and Lyrics) and book writer Rachel Shenkin (with additional material by Jay Reiss) create a heightened but real depiction of just what a local rural county spelling bee is like, as officiated by a one-time Bee veteran herself, Rona Lisa Peretti (Jaeger, who pulls off directing and acting adroitly), and high-strung Vice Principal Douglas Panch, with support from Mitch Mahoney, an ex-con who is doing community service as the Bee's "Comfort Counselor."

The students depicted are a generally likable, odd-ball assortment of middle-school-age geeks and freaks. Olive Ostrovsky is the tousled-haired shy but determined type whose absentee parents include an out of country Mother and a Dad who may not show up with her participation fee. William Barfee, a past Bee finalist, is a pudgy know-it-all type with name pronunciation issues ("It's Barfay!") and a unique "Magic Foot" technique that he uses to spell out the words before spelling them out loud. Prissy Chip Tolentino was last year's victor who tanked at the regionals and is back with an overconfident edge that may be his undoing. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre is a precocious younger student with a political awareness heightened by her rearing by two pushy gay Dads. Leaf Coneybear is the runner-up who lucked into the finals by default, a hippie-reared free spirit who spells his words in a robotic/trance-like state, and finally there is Marcy Park, a diminutive, over-achieving Asian-American girl who is beginning to be aware that giving less may yield her a more satisfying and happy existence. Four other Bee spellers are drawn, pre-show, from audience volunteers, a great gimmick yielding a fresh show every night (and a fine foursome came out of the house at the show's opening). The whole cast successfully doubles in cameo roles as the Bee's family members, real or imagined.

Ashley Fitzsimmons is a peach in the plum role of Olive, giving a nuanced and utterly sympathetic performance. Her rich voice, the standout in a solid cast, is well deployed in her late in the action, moving solo "The I Love You Song", where she is well-supported by Jaeger as her imagined Ashram-dwelling Mother and Brian DeMar Jones as her neglectful Dad. Robert Scherzer is ideal in the show-stealing role of the bombastic yet endearing William Barfee, and never lets the character's comic edge overpower his human frailty. His "Magic Foot" solo is a socko moment. Sarah Petty is a fabulously distinct Logainne, all gawky insecurity mixed with desire for acceptance, and huzzah's to DeMar Jones and William A. Williams, spot-on walk ons as her hovering Gay Dads. Williams is a born comic and his Leaf Coneybear is a droll delight. Justin Huertas couldn't be more at home as the overly self-confident Chip, and he has a showstopping when Chip has his moment of reckoning with a hilarious number, the title of which will not be a spoiler in this review. Despite apparent vocal strain, Kelly Mak is effortlessly effective as Marcy Park, whose personal success in the Bee doesn't necessarily come from winning it. The actors who play these participants develop warm interactions with each other, and help guide the spellers from the audience with subtlety.

Kate Jaeger is a wonderful center of the action, with a distinct and successfully warmer and maternal approach to playing Rona Lisa, whose life has become about the annual Bee. Her rendition of "My Favorite Moment of the Bee" is a savory moment. Brian DeMar Jones has the street smarts, jive talkin' and sass of Mitch down, but never downplays the character's humanity. Finally, Douglas Willott couldn't be bettered in his take on VP Panch, a man who puts the "h" in high strung.

Collin Connors' scenic design is simple and appropriate, as are Kati Dawson's costumes, and Robert Aguilar's lighting is effective and unshowy. Sound issues that I have noticed in past performances at Ballard Underground were not in evidence here.

The cozy Ballard Underground deserves to be sold out for the four-week run of this show. Tickets are priced at bargain levels, and I can easily recommend this as possibly the best production of a musical locally in recent memory. If anything spells entertainment, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee certainly does!

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs at the Ballard Underground, 2220 NW Market in downtown Ballard through August 14 at 8PM with Saturday late night shows at 11pm. Go to for more information.

Photo: Danielle Barnum

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.

- David Edward Hughes

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