Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
For decades, the Studio Series at The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) has mounted some wonderful, smaller scale musicals which offer both performers and audiences a chance to appreciate and experience some unique shows. Their current production, the very funny musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is just the type of show that stretches the student cast and is a satisfying night of theater.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee offers a satirical look at six wacky kids (played by adults), along with some audience volunteers, competing in their local county spelling bee. There are three adult characters also present to oversee the competition, and the contestants learn much about life and themselves as they use their individual and eccentric techniques toward spelling the difficult words they're given.
Spelling Bee started as an experimental theater piece called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, which was created by Rebecca Feldman and her improvisational group The Farm. Rachel Sheinkin was brought in as the official book writer to provide structure and to focus the story and characters. Ms. Sheinkin's sharp wit, careful balance between comedic punch and emotional connection, and winning dialogue won her the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. In addition, the show incorporates four audience volunteers, providing opportunity for some improv hilarity.
The score for the show is by tunesmith William Finn, a composer whose work is regularly staged at CCM. If the songs are not quite up to the level of his masterpiece Falsettos, his style is just right for these quirky characters, and it provides moments of both great humor and deep personal insight. Though Finn uses forced rhymes and seemingly unnecessary profanity occasionally, his conversational lyrics and jaunty melodies make the songs accessible. Tunes such as "I Speak Six Languages," "My Friend, The Dictionary," and "The I Love You Song" each capture in both music and lyrics the adolescent longings of fitting in and seeking approval from family and peers. A song with a title like "My Unfortunate Erection," which chronicles how one speller gets distracted during the bee, shows that this Spelling Bee leans toward being more appropriate for adult audiences, though many teenagers will certainly empathize.
The CCM cast is certainly game for the mayhem that this show requires and is outstanding without exception. Madeleine Spacapan is bubbly, classy and mature as grown-up spelling bee host Rona Lisa Peretti, who relives her own spelling bee win from years ago as she guides the students and the audience through the musical. As Vice Principal Douglas Panch, Tyler Huckstep drolly (and sometimes sarcastically) delivers many of the show's funniest lines, and sings well as Olive's dad. This production features a female take on "Comfort Counselor" Mitch Mahoney, and Raven Thomas displays strong character details, a deliciously apt attitude, and great vocals.
DJ Plunkett skillfully captures the clueless, uncomfortable yet gentle spirit of loveable loser Leaf Coneybear, and Clara Cox is a hoot as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the fiery young activist daughter of two gay dads. Ms. Cox gets lots of laughs with her facial expressions alone, and also scores with a funny bit tied to the character's speech issue. Chris Collins-Pisano is appropriately pompous and whiny as the quickly disqualified returning champ Chip Tolentino, and scores with a brief Ed Grimley imitation. Samantha Pollino is aptly focused, proper, and formal as Marcy Park, a girl expected to always excel, and shows off a wealth of well-honed talents during her big number, "I Speak Six Languages." As William Barfee, the obnoxious buffoon who spells words using his "magic foot," Thomas James Knapp strikes comedy gold through his cruel, cocky and off-center antics. Gina Santare presents Olive Ostrovsky more as broken and sad rather than the usual timid take on the role, and shows off a strong singing voice. The cast does an excellent job singing the choral numbers of the show.
Director and choreographer Vince DeGeorge keeps up the necessary quick pace and does well in maintaining the proper balance of humor, heart and uniqueness which is so integral to the show. He has some very effective staging of several scenes/songs, including "Magic Foot" and the Jesus scene, and his direction varies significantly (but just as effectively) as the Broadway / national tour original. Musical director Ryan Sigurdson leads the sprightly five-piece band (special kudos to Curtis Holtgrefe on the woodwinds).
Considering CCM's production is in their black box space, the simple set by Anna Brown appropriately captures the school gymnasium setting. The lighting by Ethan M. Peterson is apt and distinctly helps signify flashback moments. The costumes by Risa Alecci are fun and character specific.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a laugh-out-loud show, but one that also speaks to the joys and fears, and victories and defeats, of children in our society. CCM provides a great staging of this fun show, and since tickets are free, it's an opportunity not to be missed if you can get a ticket. The musical plays at CCM through April 5, 2014. For tickets and more information, call (513) 556-2283.-- Scott Cain