Post by Clarissa Fortin.
At the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee you’ll find a lovable crew of outcasts, overachievers, and general weirdos. You might see kids you knew growing up on that stage. And you might see yourself.
You could also actually end up on the stage. One of the many charms of this play, which is currently being put on at the Gladstone by Indie Women Productions, is the audience participation. Several members of the audience are chosen to “compete” in the bee alongside the cast. This adds a welcome dose of spontaneity to the show.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee follows the trials and tribulations of six spelling bee contestants. They include unsmiling child prodigy Marcy Park, former winner and self declared “alpha male” Chip Tolentino, absentminded homeschooler Leaf Coneybear, and hyper-political lisper Logan Schwartzandgrubenniere.
The actors portraying the young Putnam Spelling Bee hopefuls exude the brightness and energy necessary to be convincing children. Julia Redfern stands out as lonely dictionary-lover Olive Ostrovsky, and Andrew Portolesi is charming in the role of the unfortunately named William Barfee. The friendship the two develop over the course of the bee is genuinely touching.
As an ensemble this cast sounds fantastic, even during chaotic group numbers like “Life is Pandemonium,” in which the children rebel against the rules of the bee and run amok onstage.
However, the band sometimes drowns out soloists and overpowers spoken lines. This is a small but important issue because the lyrics by William Finn are complicated and many jokes are lost when they aren’t audible.
This is a clever play overall, and this cast tackles the wordplay with ease. Spelling Bee announcer Vice Principal Douglas Panch, (played by Paul LeDuc) delivers the ludicrous definitions of each word without batting an eye. The words these kids take on are challenging: strabismus, phylactery, and acouchi are just a few of the more unusual ones. I guarantee you’ll learn at least one new word before the show is done.
Director Kodi Cannon’s staging and choreography is creative and effective. When Olive sings about her love of the dictionary her fellow competitors form a human dictionary behind her. During William Barfee’s dream sequence a pair of rolling chairs are used to hilarious and romantic effect. A simple lamp and canopy set the stage for the haunting “I Love You Song”. That number features Julia Redfern, Christine Moran, and Dale Waterman, three of the strongest voices in the cast. The harmonies sent chills down my spine in the best way possible. That was probably my favorite moment of the bee.
I’m tempted to say that it’s a great show for the whole family but if you decide to take your kids be prepared to talk about a couple jokes involving erections and virginity.
This production is also a fundraiser for the Do It For Daron campaign, which “encourages young people to talk more openly about mental illness.”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs at the Gladstone theatre until November 19th. Tickets are available here.