If you need a holiday in innocence, check out The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
The musical features three eccentric adults, but it’s the vulnerability of its six quirky kid characters that makes the piece so charming. As they compete against one another in a spelling contest, these preadolescents wear their hearts on their sleeves. You can’t help but feel for Logainne as she strains to avoid disappointing her ambitious gay dads. The home-schooled Leaf lives up to the hippie eccentricity of his name, wearing a helmet and cape at all times and communicating through a sock puppet that has more confidence than he does. And, although her parents have essentially abandoned her, Olive generously befriends the gruff, insecure William.
Rachel Sheinkin’s book is witty. In its most outrageous convention, four audience members are invited to join the competition and they’re integrated into the plot—and even into the choreography—for a good chunk of time. Contestants can ask to hear the word they’ve been asked to spell used in a sentence. A phylactery is a square leather box that an Orthodox Jewish man might wear on is arm. The sentence offered is, “Billy, put down that phylactery, we’re Episcopalian.”
Under Ryan Mooney’s direction, Fighting Chance Productions’ presentation of this material is a freewheeling good time. Musical director Andrew Cohen can take a lot of credit for the power of the choral work, which comes at you in delicious waves of sound, and for the tightness of the three-piece band. Erin Mitchell’s choreography is refreshingly playful.
With her powerful voice and impressive range, Jennifer Suratos grounds the evening as Rona Peretti, the bee’s moderator. Kelli Ogmundson brings a winning combination of honesty and comic spin to Logainne, and Ian Crowe’s Leaf is unabashedly openhearted. Sara Walters not only delivers a touching portrait of Olive, she’s got a star-caliber voice and she knows how to shape musical material, which she does beautifully in “The I Love You Song”.
Thomas King plays Mitch Mahoney, the “comfort counselor”, the guy who escorts contestants off the stage after they’ve misspelled a word. Style can be tricky in a piece like Putnam County, which requires both comic boldness and emotional truth. On opening night, Mahoney tipped towards caricature, delivering too much attitude and too little credible emotional grounding.
Nothing goes terribly amiss in Fighting Chance’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, however. There’s a lot of meanness loose in the world these days. Give yourself a break. Go see this show.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE Music and lyrics by William Finn. Book by Rachel Sheinkin. Conceived by Rebecca Feldman. Directed by Ryan Mooney. Presented by Fighting Chance Productions at the PAL Theatre on Wednesday, November 23.