Also see Ann's coverage of Cabaret Pittsburgh's Riverview Series
The touring season in Pittsburgh continues with faithful and successful versions of musicals from the 2004-2005 Broadway season. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, conceived by Rebecca Feldman, is a somewhat intimate show, retrofit very nicely into Heinz Hall. The cast of mostly young performers, playing even younger characters, has a fresh energy that contributes greatly to the show's success. William Finn's score is hit and miss, but the title song sets a terrific pace, introducing the characters and the premise in a way that makes you look forward to what is to come. The laugh-filled book by Rachel Sheinkin (additional material by Jay Reiss) has been tweaked ever so slightly, including some local references (unnecessarily, in my opinion). The basic premise of a spelling bee is - through a witty selection of spelling words, definitions and sentence usages - elevated it to a delightfully comical show for most ages (teens through adults).
The plot is simple: we actually watch the Putnam County Spelling Bee progress, with asides to explain the characters and their backgrounds, and some portions speeded up to avoid monotony. As the adults in charge, former spelling champion Rona Lisa Peretti and pronouncer Douglas Panch introduce the words and allow the participants to ask for a definition, word origin, and/or use of the word in a sentence (and they always ask, for here is the bulk of the humor). Augmenting the six spellers in the cast are three drawn from the audience. As each speller approaches the microphone, Ms. Peretti offers a little of the speller's background. The material provided for the "guest" spellers is custom created and very funny. Eventually, all spellers but one are eliminated; "Comfort Counselor" Mitch Mahoney offers each a hug and a juice box as they exit (he is fulfilling his obligation of community service).
Jennifer Simard brings her stunning voice to the role of Rona Lisa Peretti. She is really terrific in the role. James Kall is also excellent as the ultra-geek, Douglas Panch. Together, they provide perfect adult supervision, keeping the story contained and the pace efficient. All of the young performers are good: Eric Petersen is appropriately odd yet endearing as William Barfee, Lauren Worksham is perfectly sweet as Olive Ostrovsky; Michael Zahler works hard to achieve the loopy quality of Leafy Coneybear. As Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, Sarah Stiles is high-strung and strident, while Katie Boren is direct as over-achiever Marcy Park, and Miguel Cervantes does a good job with the character Chip Tolentino (of all, the most poorly written and saddled with a squirm-inducing song that could have been very funny if it were written in a less obvious manner).
At about one hour, forty-five minutes, with no intermission, the show moves along well. The audience spellers are very well integrated and add a nice element. Most of the character songs are good, with "My Friend, the Dictionary," "Pandemonium," and Magic Foot" being standouts. I've always felt Olive's "I Love You Song" is too overdrawn and something more closely in tune with her character would have been better.
Beowulf Boritt's set looks to be very close to the Broadway version, and brings in the large proscenium of Heinz Hall to frame this smaller show in a very effective way.
This is a funny and sweet Bee, a highly recommended revisit to your school days.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee ran October 31 through November 5 at Heinz Hall. The tour continues to Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Dallas and San Diego. For more information, visit www.spellingbeethemusical.com/tour.