Anyone who has ever felt like a square peg in a round hole as an adolescent will identify with the five zany characters who compete in the two-time Tony ® Award-winning, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” I attended the musical comedy on opening night, Friday, at Actors Theatre of Indiana at the Center for the Performing Arts. The show continues through Feb. 18.
With catchy music and lyrics by William Finn, and the sweetly funny book by Rachel Sheinkin, “Spelling Bee” was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with additional material by Jay Reiss. The sometime poignant story is about an oddball group of sixth-graders competing at the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, each eager to win for very different reasons. Shy and vulnerable Olive (Emily Crowley) brings only her best friend (the dictionary) with her to the bee; volatile, hypoallergenic speller William Barfee (Brett Mutter) uses his “magic foot” to best the competition; former champion Chip (Keith Potts) is struggling with his raging hormones; space cadet Leaf (Danny Kingston) doesn’t think he’s smart enough to be a challenger; overachiever Marcy (Arianne Villareal) is despondent over her consistent success; and politically aware Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Adee David) only wants to please her gay dads.
Overseeing the bee is sweet, yet no-nonsense moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Judy Fitzgerald) who once won the spelling bee herself; High-strung Vice Principal Douglas Patch (Doug Trapp), who carries a torch for Rona; and empathetic ex-convict Johnnie Taylor (Mitch Mahoney) who serves his community service as the bee’s official comfort counselor.
Also part of the fun was the spontaneous performances of four people selected from the audience, in advance, to join the actors as fellow bee competitors. Seemingly unbeknownst to whoever selected him was local actor John Kern who was clearly in his element during his surprise stint in the show.
Well directed by Michael Blatt, the multi-talented cast uniformly excelled at singing, acting and dancing; plus, they were all adept as comedians, with all delighting an engaged audience in performances that reflected effective rhythm, timing and pacing.
I can’t say enough about the creative group of artists and craftsman who helped make this production sparkle. Contributing to its appeal were music director Brent Marty and choreographer Carol Worcel, evidenced in my favorite production number “Magic Foot,” featuring Mutter as Barfee, along with the company. Responsible for the show’s school gymnasium set is designer Bernie Killian. Erin Meyer designed the lighting and Erin Meyer the costumes. Zach Rosing did his usual superb job of designing sound.
For someone, who is a fan of NPR’s “A Way with Words,” and spends much of his time wordsmithing, “Spelling Bee” held an obvious attraction, but what also resonated with me was the endearing quality of the script and the affection it held for those often referred to as nerds and geeks. And though much of the story’s humor is derived from satire of an academic exercise, it nevertheless was a reminder of why education and excellence is to be both valued, and celebrated.
For tickets and information about “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” visit thecenterfortheperformingarts.org.