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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

a Musical Comedy
CATEGORY : COMEDY MUSICAL
by William Finn

COMPANY : Act 3 Productions [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Act 3 Playhouse [WEBSITE]
ID# 3921

SHOWING : January 14, 2011 - January 16, 2011

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

Six young people in the throes of puberty, overseen by grown-ups who barely managed to escape childhood themselves, learn that winning isn't everything and that losing doesn't necessarily make you a loser.

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is a hilarious tale of overachievers' angst chronicling the experience of six adolescent outsiders vying for the spelling championship of a lifetime. The show's Tony Award winning creative team has created the unlikeliest of hit musicals about the unlikeliest of heroes: a quirky yet charming cast of outsiders for whom a spelling bee is the one place where they can stand out and fit in at the same time.

Rated PG-13 for some adult content.



CAST & CREW LIST
Mitch Mahoney Joe Arnotti
William Barfee Connor Crank
Carl Dad Brad Dickey
Rona Lisa Perretti Ansley Elizabeth Gwinn
Dan Dad Camron Hunter
Douglas Panch Davis Lee
Jesus Alex Miller
Olive's Mom Michelle Peck
Leaf Coneybear Daniel Pino
Olive's Dad Marcus Rodriguez
Olive Ostrovsky Alli Sheahan
Logainne Schwarzandgrubenniere Jo Jo Steine
Chip Tolentino Austin Tijerina
Marcy Park Angie Zhang
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REVIEWS

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B-A-L-A-N-C-I-N-G Act
by Dedalus
Saturday, January 29, 2011
3.5
Productions of William Finn's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" are quickly becoming as common as, well, as middle school spelling bees. This is the second production I've seen since Halloween, and there are at least two more area productions before summer.

So, what makes this such a hit with audiences and with theatres? More to the point, why do I like it so much? I can probably answer these questions very simply - it's an easy show to produce, it can (and should) be alternately quite funny and quite moving, and every production, indeed every performance can be a little bit unique (if you'll forgive a classic usage faux pas).

Let's start by cutting and pasting my summary from G.E.T.'s late fall production. Starting out as a small improvisational one-act called "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E," it was produced by The Farm, a New York comedy Troupe. Composer William Finn ("Falsettos," "A New Brain") saw the production and convinced playwright Rebecca Feldman to work with him to create a full-length musical. Workshopped and developed extensively by the Barrington Stage Company, it eventually found its way to off-Broadway and finally, in 2005, to Broadway, and, apparently, everywhere else.

Set in a high school gym in geographically ambiguous Putnam County (allowing for numerous local references and ad-libs), the show follows a group of eccentric kids, three equally eccentric adults, and several selected-at-random audience members as they compete to win the spelling bee. Keeping its Improv-roots intact, topical and local references and jokes abound, and the monitor of the bee is given free rein to use the increasingly eccentric words in increasingly eccentric usages.

There is a serious undertone to the piece as each of the contestants represents a different aspect of some family dysfunction -- parental neglect, too-high-expectations, large-family put-downs ("Dumb Kid!"), over-hovering parents (in this case, two Dads), and so forth. In fact, in contrast to how hard we laugh at some of the excesses of the bee itself, the songs can be down-right serious, and "The I-Love-You Song" in particular (in which the neglected girl conjures the chimerical image of her parents lavishing her with affection) never fails to move me to tears. Throughout, the cast drops in and out of supporting roles in the contestants' memories and fantasies (including a dryly affectionate and very Jewish Jesus).

Act 3 Productions endeavors to give as many performers an opportunity to perform as possible, often expanding casts to match the level of talent available. This production has already been criticized for adding six new characters who also do the lion's share of "doubling." My own take is that criticizing Act 3 for doing this is as valid as criticizing Théâtre du Rêve for doing their shows in French - it's what they do, so it should be expected. The question should be, do the new characters unnecessarily "pad" the show, and do the additions actually add to the show?

For me it's a close call, but, because of the energy and talent on display, I'm inclined to give the production the benefit of the doubt. For one thing, taking the minor characters away from the principal actors is a good choice - it makes some of the transitions less jarring. For another, it gives an opportunity to really pack the small stage for the "Pandemonium" number, which I thought clicked on all levels.

On the other hand, I thought most of the added characters veered over the line into stereotypes and caricatures - we have (among others) a tough guy "bad-ass" in a T-Shirt and Jersey accent, a dull-witted weight-lifter wearing his athletic leotards, and an immigrant from Bavaria in lederhosen and bad blonde wig. Perhaps some more thought should have gone into giving them a little dimension or surprise. Of course, having the "bad-ass" double as Olive's dad for "The I-Love-You" song was an inspired choice that was definitely a plus.

And, to the production's credit, it didn't "feel" padded to me, and, in fact, some of the new dialogue (and words), sounded familiar and in character with the rest of the show. I've never seen the published script, but I suspect, like many improv-based shows, it gives a lot of "extra" spelling words and exchanges that can be added or deleted.

As to the main cast, they are all quite good with creating their characters and making them work in this intimate setting. My favorites were Joe Arnotti's long and lanky Mitch Mahoney, Jo-Jo Steine's Logainne Schwarzandgrubenniere (who succeeded in making her lisped dialogue and lyrics perfectly understandable), Angie Zhang over-achieving Marcy Park, and Alli Sheahan's sad and goofy Olive Ostrovsky. The entire ensemble, in fact, blended well and played off each other beautifully.

Where the production fell short was in many of the technical aspects. I thought too many of the costumes were meant more as "walking sight gags" rather than as credible wardrobes. Vice Principal Douglas Panche's stained trousers, William Barfee's shirt-tail through the fly, Chip Tolentino's baseball Jersey ("Nicaragua"?), and the aforementioned lederhosen and weight-lifting tights spoke more of an eccentric costumer than of eccentric characters.

I also found some of the lighting color choices downright wrong - fantasy sequences disappeared in primary blues and purples, and areas were oddly balanced (brighter lights shifting the focus from where it needed to be). These proved to be very distracting to my admittedly overly-critical eye.

And, if I wanted to be REALLY picky, I'd also cite the occasional mispronounced word ("Dengue" and "Onager" were particularly bollixed) and even one misspelled word that was allowed to pass (Leaf Coneybear put a random "C" in front of "Acouchi").

But, these are all balanced out by the aggressively entertaining cast, the fast-paced dialogue, the few nicely executed production numbers, and the singing from all. I laughed at jokes I'd heard before and at stuff which was quite new ("President Bristol Palin Kennedy"? Loved it!). I even found the more serious moments appealing and not (terribly) undercut by the over-the-top costumes and missed-opportunity lighting scheme.

So, this was still a "Bee" that had some sting and that hasn't lost its spell. And, on balance, that's a G-O-O-D T-H-I-N-G!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

Postscript: Thank you for letting "Chip's Lament" have its original lyric, but the schtick with the microphone at the end was clumsily set up (was that particular microphone ever used anywhere else in the show?) and perhaps a tad gratuitous. But it still made me laugh.

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