25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Review)

The word from Showbiz Players is 'entertaining'

I saw the original production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee early in 2005, well before it moved to Broadway. The charming musical about awkward adolescents in a spelling contest had had a summer tryout at Barrington Stage in western Massachusetts. I lucked into a February performance at an off-Broadway venue, Second Stage.

The show did well there and moved to Circle in the Square on Broadway in May 2005, where it ran for nearly three years (a very respectable total of 1,136 performances). It was nominated for six Tony Awards and won two, one for the best book of a musical and another for actor Dan Fogler, who played the adenoidal, insecure William Barfee.

Before those accolades began to accrue to the show, however, I sensed that it would have a long life with community theaters. It’s a great vehicle for an ensemble cast of young performers, and the show’s use of four audience members as additional spellers makes it the kind of production that people have fun because there’s always the sense that they’re seeing fresh and new, a first-time jolt with amateurs, especially people others in the audience might know.

I’m pleased to say that my instincts were right, and one of the first productions licensed to an amateur theater is happening right here in Cincinnati. Showbiz Players, a community theater with a history spanning three decades, is presenting it at the Madisonville Arts Center in a two-week run through April 25. I saw it April 17.

Director Bunny Arszman has a long history with the company, having produced and directed shows for 23 years, and she’s been especially effective staging ensemble works like The Civil War and Urinetown, both recognized in the past by the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEAs). For Spelling Bee, she’s assembled another able set of performers — nine in all — who do a nice job of capturing the humor, angst and passion of these kids (and three mismatched adults) who compete, agonize and eventually celebrate the curious joy of spelling.

This production works hard to recreate the original, right down to costume choices. That’s a natural inclination when the not-too-distant Broadway version was so successful, but part of me wishes that the actors were allowed to make it a bit more of their own. Jen McGuire totally gets the precocious, pressured Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (she has two dads) and is the leader of the Gay-Straight Alliance at her elementary school, and Emily Rowekamp is shy and withdrawn Olive Ostroshky, whose parents have neglected her, leaving her with words as her best friends. McGuire and Rowekamp, both excellent singers, are costumed identically to the original performers; that works for McGuire, although she’s a tad too old to be convincing as a kid in elementary school, and Rowekamp looks pretty frumpy in a pair of hot-pink bib overalls.

Even worse is Bill Geraghty as the unkempt, insecure Barfée. Fogler’s original had a mop of too long, unkempt hair; Geraghty wears a wig that just looks unreal, and it’s distracting. Wouldn’t it have been better to have him find a way that grew out of his own physicality to convey this character’s inner (and outer) geek?

Geraghty is also probably too old for his role. That’s a big challenge with this show: The show’s creators envisioned young adult actors playing adolescents (most of them double as the kids' parents and other fantasy characters in various vignettes), but community theaters don’t necessarily have the range of choice to make that happen. Nevertheless, several of them work very well: Zachary Huffman is fine as a hormonally obsessed kid who won a year earlier but is too distracted to make it this year, especially when he’s being thrown tough words, and Elizabeth Chinn portrays tightly wound Marcy Park with the right degree of hyper-controlled anxiety.

The production’s “real” adults are fun to watch, especially Ken Goldhoff as the deadpan vice principal who pronounces the words and tries to keep things under control. Stacey Bausch is Rona Lisa Peretti, a former champion who is now the emcee who dispenses vapid facts about the contestants. R. DeAndré Smith plays a low-end offender who is doing his community service giving comfort — and juice boxes — to those who misspell a word. (He also has a couple of rabble-rousing musical numbers, including “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.”

This is a swift staging of the show, well within two hours, and the intimacy of the Madisonville facility makes it all the more fun because you feel close to the spellers. Composer William Finn and writer Rachel Shenkin’s show is a nice piece of theater because it cleverly uses the words given to the contestants as catalysts for musical numbers: Olive, who dreams about her absent mother and workaholic dad, is given the word “chimerical” which she defines as “highly fanciful and unrealistic,” words that describe her own mental state perfectly.

This production of Spelling Bee is a great example of how entertaining community theater can be.

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is presented by Showbiz Players through April 25 at the Madisonville Arts Center, 5021 Whetsel Ave. Information and tickets: www.showbizplayers.com.

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