This century, there really hasn’t been an across-the-board hit in the world of alternative musicals that can rival The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Putnam County is well on its way to becoming as popular a stop on American stages as Grover’s Corners or River City. In other words, it’s the new Rydell High.
With this bold new production by the Theatre Group at SBCC, it’s easy to see why the Bee has become so popular. The action is unpredictable, the jokes are funny, and the characters and their songs have unexpected depth. For example, as socially challenged super-speller William Barfée, multi-threat theater artist Miller James gets to show off his dancing skills in the improbable showstopper “Magic Foot.” As the lovable flake Leaf Coneybear, Tad Alan Murroughs turns somersaults and tosses off non sequiturs with equal ease.
The fact that this all takes place on Pat Franks’s gorgeous set adds layers of brilliant detail to the proceedings. Lilli Babb makes a fun and believable Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, and Whitney Claire Kaufman as Olive Ostrovsky is wide-eyed and adorable. Allison Lewis (Marcy Park) and Emily Jewell (Rona Lisa Peretti/Olive’s Mom) vie for top vocal honors, each providing thrilling moments in major solos. Brian Harwell holds it all together by routinely cracking everyone up as Vice Principal Panch, and the orchestra under David Potter brings out all the personality in this very character-driven score. Some of the best moments, which I won’t give away, involve Skyler Jones as an unexpected and very well known special guest.