The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, William Finn and Rachael Sheinkin’s 2005 Tony-winner, is part of a growing trend of shorter, one-act musicals that include improvisation. And it’s such plays that will likely become a staple of the new repertoire for such talented young actors as Upstage Left’s cast for this production.
The approach they have taken, which is to double the opportunities by casting the group of six contestants twice, and rotating these casts in performance, shows how to reach more young people, even on a small budget. I saw the show with the “acouchi” cast—yes, that’s the rodent belonging to the Dasyproctidae family of Amazonia—and they were great, but what’s particularly nice about the Spelling Bee is that it’s easy to imagine that the “syzygy” cast could be entirely different and still just as funny.
Add to that the fact that every night four new members of the audience are called onstage to spell, and you get a show that’s truly guaranteed not to repeat itself. With all this potential for anarchic “Pandemonium,” as the show’s central chorus number has it, how does Putnam County hold together?
Beyond the built-in tension of the bee itself, there’s the stand-up comedy skills of Emma Steinkellner and Albee Rothman as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who make a great team, and the multifaceted, frequently uproarious Kenneth Johnson, who excels in several key roles, including comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney.
At the core, though, are the contestants, each of whom must, in the best tradition of the musical theater, struggle toward some greater realization. As William Barfée, Evan Bell brings lightness to the physical comedy and tenderness to the moments of self-doubt. Heather Dell’s Olive Ostrovsky manages the same trick by being vulnerable—her early song “My Friend the Dictionary” is more heartbreaking than funny—and then rising to the occasion with some unexpected kicks. Phillip Hodgson is appropriately over the top as Leaf Coneybear, Putnam County’s most unpredictable resident, and Parker Wright is perfect as the embarassed Boy Scout, Chip Tolentino.
Finally, there are two amazing “turns” in this show for exceptional young performers. These big numbers with great music and lots of changes were done beautifully the night that I saw them. Rachelle Clark was terrific as Marcy Park, whose “I Speak Six Languages” is the “Let Me Entertain You” of the gifted child, and Cameron Platt was a splendid Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the middle-school Mama Rose whose “Woe Is Me” is Putnam County’s version of the great “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy.