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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Spells Charm at the Paramount

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

On Broadway, in a much smaller house than the grand and rather cavernous Seattle Paramount theatre, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was easily the most delightful musical I saw on my annual NYC trek during the 2004-2005 season. I am happy to report that the show is not swallowed up by a larger venue. And I was glad to see a sizable and cheering opening night crowd taking in this small, charming musical which welcomed the sorely missed composer/lyricist William (Falsettos) back to Broadway.

The show, which was developed in the more nurturing environs of regional theatre prior to Broadway, is based on the play C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, which was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, and features a smart, funny and warm book by Rachel Sheinkin with additional material by Jay Reiss. An engaging young principal cast of twenty-somethings play an assortment of kids, most but not all of them nerdy overachievers, competing in the title Bee. With spelling bees in vogue like never before, this show had a built-in audience, and it also offers some of the best audience participation you will ever see. Several audience members volunteer each show to join a bee participants, and the group on opening night were as funny and confident a lot as the actual performers. Director par excellence James Lapine, ably assisted by choreographer Dan Knechtges' intricately subtle dance steps, creates a heightened yet believable competition. Think of it as A Chorus Line for spellers.

As William Barfee the frequent victim of last name mispronunciation (rhyme it with play not tree) Eric Petersen has the juiciest role. He takes the stage with bravura, spelling out his words with his feet, dealing awkwardly with a lifelong nasal drainage condition and slowly becoming romantically attracted to the shy, lonely Olive Ostrovsky, played with heartwarming charm by the lustrously voiced Lauren Worsham. Katie Boren is pitch perfect in the role of mega-overachiever Marcy Park, who ultimately finds delight in fumbling in the contest she quite possibly might win in exchange for some welcome normalcy. Sarah Stiles as rival overachiever Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre is a howl as she tries to appease her two gay Dads and win the bee. She also had a great opening night improv bit about Dreamgirls' Effie White, managing to even borrow the big finish of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" to rousing effect. Miguel Cervantes catches all the right nuances of Chip Tolentino, last year's winner (and this year's train-wreck), and reveals a great big voice as he revels in Finn's hilarious number in which Chip curses a certain pubescent bulge in his slacks that thwarts his second victory. The last of the kids, one Leaf Coneybear, is an endearing schlub as played by the captivating Michael Zahler, who got into the bee as a 2nd runner-up turned winner by default.

As former bee champ turned real estate gal Rona Lisa Peretti, Jennifer Simard mines every comic possibility, and sings with power and control. As her adult counterpart, chronically unwound vice-principal Douglas Panch, James Kall delivers his many humorous pronunciations and uses of words in a sentence with grand comic zeal, and really goes to town with his character's near breakdown. Finally, it is hard to overlook Alan H. Green's tongue ever so slightly in cheek African American 'Comfort Counselor' Mitch Mahoney, whose involvement in the bee is due to public service but winds up rewarding. Green, Simard, Cervantes and Zahler all earn extra points in clever cameo roles ranging from Jesus Christ to a gay Dad.

By necessity, Finn's score is ballad light (and he has a near miss with Worsham's song to her absent parents, in that it sounds too much like a Falsettos cut-out) and unconventional in form, but it is nonetheless terrific, and sung to perfection by the company. Beowulf Boritt's cunning cafeteria set and Jennifer Caprio's wonderfully child-centric costumes (with a special cheer for Leaf's eclectic ensemble) are noteworthy, and musical director Jodie Moore leads her singers and instrumentalists with zeal. While not overlooking the typical opening night sound and spotlight issues, in all other respects The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a welcome start to the New Year for Seattle theatre fans. The word to best describe it? Sublime.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through January 14, 2007 at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine Street. For more information go online at www.theparamount.com


Photo: Joan Marcus



- David-Edward Hughes



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