Note: this review was posted on the KC Stage review system.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, conceived by Rebecca Feldman, book by Rachel Sheinkin, music & lyrics by William Finn, and additional material by Ray Reiss; directed by Steven Eubank. Produced by American Heartland Theatre (Kansas City). First produced 2004. (Seen July 15, 2010.)
Spelling can be funny. From the pre-show music of “Crazy Alphabet” by Barenaked Ladies and “C is for Cookie” by the Cookie Monster to the gym-designed stage (including a banner ad for Putnam Optometrists), American Heartland Theatre’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee is a quick, sweet, humorous piece of Americana.
Putnam County, by William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin, and Rebecca Feldman, is, on the surface, exactly what it sounds like it will be: a story of a spelling bee. But the choice to have adults playing children and audience members as additional spellers makes this musical something more.
The adults playing kids isn’t anything new: and this show echoes You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in using adult 20/20 hindsight to view the various pressures of being a child — especially in a competition. And using audience members shows the improv nature of the origins of the show.
The show starts out fast, with the opening number quickly introducing the competitors and the three adults in the show. The stories are fairly typical, and you can see some inspiration for Glee in several of the characters — especially Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (played by Olivia Marsh) with her two gay dads pushing her to succeed.
But it’s the humor where Putnam County succeeds — and there, Ken Remmert (as Vice Principal Douglas Panch) steals the show — mostly with the words given to the audience spellers. (Having been told they can ask for a definition and use in a sentence, when given “Xanadu”, the audience member asks for use, to which Remmert does with a bad rendition of the Olivia Newton-John song.)
Of course, Remmert’s not the only one with good humor — there’s the character of Mitch Mahoney (played by Jermaine Blackwell) — who’s the ‘comfort counselor’ as part of his parole, an appearance by Jesus during one of the spellers call for help, and the character of Chip Tolentino (played with boyish abandon by Price Messick) who’s (spoiler alert) reason for being disqualified is an unfortunate side affect of puberty (and who has a song at the beginning of Act II is all about it).
Act II is where we get our more serious moments, as is typically the case in comedic shows. “Joy never comes for free,” says the character of Rona Lisa Peretti, played with (intentional) sickeningly sweet pep by Collen Grate, and this is best illustrated by Olive Ostrovsky, played by Braton. This is where Braton really shines — especially in her song “The I Love You Song”. While all the actors were good singers, Braton has the sweetest songs and really shows passion and longing.
If there was one issue with this specific production it’s that the sound seemed to be a continuous problem. From songs constantly sounding muted and nowhere near as grand as the space allows it to problems with Blackwell’s microphone toward the end of the first act (which did get resolved during the intermission), it always seemed like the actors were constantly being held back by the sound possibilities.
Putnam County is quirky, entertaining, and well-done, and I heartily recommend it for anyone who’s a fan of musicals, Glee, and just a good show.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs until August 22. For more information, visit the American Heartland Theatre’s website.