The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee offers a lovingly hilarious look at six unusual kids (played by adults), along with audience volunteers, competing in their local county spelling bee. There are several adult characters also present to oversee the competition, and the contestants learn a lot about life and themselves as they use their unique and eccentric techniques for spelling the difficult words they're given.
Spelling Bee began as an experimental theatre piece called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, which was created by Rebecca Feldman and her improvisational group The Farm. Rachel Sheinkin was brought in as the official bookwriter to provide structure and to focus the story and characters. Ms. Sheinkin's sharp wit, careful balance between comedic punch and emotional connection, and engaging dialogue won her the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. In addition, the show incorporates four audience volunteers, providing opportunity for improv comedy.
The score is by composer/lyricist William Finn (Falsettos, A New Brain). If the songs are not quite up to the level of his masterpiece Falsettos, Mr. Finn's style is just right for these quirky characters and provides moments of both great humor and deep personal insight. Though Finn uses forced rhymes and seemingly unnecessary profanity occasionally, his conversational lyrics and jaunty melodies make the songs accessible. Songs such as "I Speak Six Languages", "My Friend, The Dictionary", and the hauntingly beautiful "The I Love You Song" each capture in both music and lyrics the adolescent longings of fitting in and seeking approval from family and peers. A song with a title like "My Unfortunate Erection," which chronicles how one speller gets distracted during the competition, shows that this spelling bee leans toward being more appropriate for adult audiences, though many teenagers will certainly empathize.
The CCM cast is certainly game for the mayhem that the show requires and is outstanding without exception. Joey Baciocco skillfully uses his tall, thin frame for physical comedy, and captures the clueless, uncomfortable yet gentle spirit of loveable loser Leaf Coneybear. Amanda Bishop presents Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the youngest speller, with a more subtle and genuine take than what I've seen in other productions. She provides many excellent acting choices. Annalise Prentiss (Marcy Park) is aptly focused, proper and formal as a girl expected to always excel, and likewise supplies great acting throughout. Andrew Burke is appropriately pompous and whiny as Chip Tolentino, the quickly disqualified returning champ, and has wonderful stage presence. As William Barfee, the obnoxious bully who spells words using his "magic foot," Nichols Pattarini gets lots of laughs with his arrogant and off-center antics. Madison Osment endearingly captures the timid and somewhat broken nature of Olive Ostrovsky, and brings warm and impressive singing.
Julie Schick is animated and sassy as grown-up spelling bee host Rona Lisa Peretti, who relives her own win from years before as she guides the students and the audience through the musical. Schick also shows off great vocals, including a fantasy moment as Olive's mother. As Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, Dan Klimko drolly (and sometimes angrily) delivers many of the show's funniest lines. As "Comfort Counselor" Mitch Mahoney (and as Olive's dad), Sam Yousuf displays versatility and soulful singing to the delight of the audience. JT Langlas makes the most out of his cameo as Jesus. The cast does a superb job in singing the choral numbers of the show.
Director and choreographer Chaz Wolcott pulls out funny yet grounded performances from the cast, and maintains the proper balance of humor, heart and uniqueness, which is so integral to the show. There are several very effective directorial choices, including a nice ode to A Chorus Line, some fun pre-show "business" that introduces the audience to the spellers through non-verbals, and a chaotic breakout of playground equipment during "Pandemonium." Wolcott also includes well-suited background dances to a few numbers, including "Magic Foot," which are extremely appealing. Musical director Steve Goers leads the spirited five-piece band.
Considering the constraints of CCM's production's black box space, the simple set by Regan Densmore appropriately captures the school gymnasium setting and also gives a nod to the spelling theme with letters painted on the stage floor. The lighting by Jessica Drayton is apt, especially during the fantasy and flashback moments. The costumes by Corey Cochran are fun and character specific.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a laugh-out-loud show, but one that also speaks to the joys and fears, and victories and defeats, of children in our society. CCM is providing a first-rate staging of this musical which is worth seeing even if you've seen a previous mounting of the show (at CCM or otherwise).
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through November 12, 2023, at CCM, Cohen Family Studio Theater, 290 CCM Blvd, Cincinnati, OH 45221. For tickets and information, call (513) 556-4183 or visit https://ccmonstage.universitytickets.com/w/?cid=168.