Fun and games at the “Spelling Bee”

Participants of a spelling bee sing, dance and battle for the giant trophy. This hilarious slice of life leave audiences rolling in the aisles.

 The audience burst out into laughter and applause. The young man had just spelled an impossible word correctly. He was an audience member who had been called onstage for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He was supposed to have been eliminated.

He was one of four audience members who had been chosen, based on a survey, to join the other spellers. This added unpredictability allowed the performers to improvise. And the audience loved it.

Once again, they called him up to the microphone, and gave him an impossible word to spell. The moderators were laughing. He misspelled the word and was sent off the stage with a chorus of “goodbyes” and a juice box. The crowd cheered.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was presented by the Lied Center in Lawrence last Thursday night. The touring production was directed and choreographed by Darren Katz and the musical supervisor/director was Michael Borth. Before it was a touring production, it was an award-winning Broadway hit. If you visit you can watch a short clip of their performance at the Tony Awards.

Putnam County Spelling Bee

The first thing I should mention about this production is the story. The show was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, written by Rachel Sheinkin, with music and lyrics created by William Finn. Sheinkin’s story is unique in that each character gets their moment to shine. I was unable to predict who would win (unusual for “contest” plays), and was constantly surprised by the elimination of a character. The spelling word definitions and sentences were hilarious. The characters’ reactions were even better. Finn’s music finds the delicate mix between tender and humorous. The songs were enjoyable, but I wasn’t humming the tunes when I left the theatre. I think the book made the production a hit.

Darren Katz choreographed the show beautifully. The dance numbers used a number of surprising combinations, designed to entertain, not just to show off. Memorable dances include William’s”Magic Foot” dance and Marcy’s “I Speak Six Languages”.

William Barfee, played by Christian Busath, was the chubby science geek. He would spell a word with the help of his magic foot, and declare, “I know.” when it was correct. Busath had the comic timing and physical prowess of Chris Farley. Not only comic relief, the story allowed William to make friends, and hug his “mom” (a random audience member) when he succeeded.

Olive, a nice little girl in pink overalls, was waiting for her dad to show up. Played by Brittany Ross, a woman with a lovely voice and some very nice acting skills, it nearly broke my heart when she sang the “I Love You” song to her parents, who were both absent from the “Bee.”

Ryan Goodale, a versatile performer, played Leaf Coneybear and several bit parts. Leaf discovers during the course of the play that he is smart, despite what his siblings tell him. Goodale’s performance indicated that Leaf had some kind of learning disability.

Yvonne Same played the overachieving Marcy Park, who has a breakdown mid-show. Same was the only actor who actually looked like a child. A very talented individual, she got a chance to showcase in “I Speak Six Languages” where she twirled batons, karate chopped tables and played the piano, all while singing and dancing. I was impressed.

The ensemble cast rounded out by equally talented performers. Nikki Switzer was Rona Lisa Peretti, the moderator with a beautiful voice. Joanna Krupnick was Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, a (difficult to understand) lisping little girl with a competitive streak. Anthony Lopez was Douglas Pauch, the vice principal who delivered the hilarious spelling words with all the dryness of a spelling bee moderator. Mitch Mahoney, a paroled convict doing community service, was delightfully played by Don Juan Seward, II. Nigel Jamaal Clark played Chip Tolentino, a boyscout and former winner of the “Bee.”

Beowulf Boritt’s scene design was bright and colorful and suggested a school gym. The costumes were designed by Jennifer Caprio. They were colorful and hinted at the spellers personalities, making each kid memorable and distinctive. Lights, Charlie Morrison, were realistic during the scenes. During songs, the lights set the mood in very extreme and creative ways.

Bottom line, this show was very funny. I laughed quite a bit, and I let the theatre with a case of the giggles. It was well deserving of the awards it has received. I recommend seeing it if you get a chance. Or perhaps one of our local theatres could produce it…? Hmm.

Lied Center of KU
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Lied Center, KU Campus, Lawrence KS