Angst to Laughter: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Intrepid Shakespeare Company is riding on a bit of a high. The theatre group recently received a lot of recognition for their fifth season, by winning the Don Braunagel Award for Outstanding Work by a Small Theatre Company at the Craig Noel Awards. They also won Outstanding Dramatic Production for a critically acclaimed interpretation of All My Sons. While the other shows of the season have been staged at San Dieguito Academy, the final production is currently playing at San Marcos High School. This venue turns out to be the most appropriate place for the tenth anniversary version of the musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Several socially challenged middle school students including a self absorbed “Poindexter,” William Barfee (Omri Schein), a dictionary loving bookworm, Olive Ostrovsky (Sarah Errington) and a homeschooled black sheep, Leaf Coneybear (Kevin Hafso-Koppman), compete against each other for a trophy and $200. Although the event is supposed to be a fun celebration of spelling, most of the pre-teens desperately want to win and believe taking home first place will make their lives change for the better.
If that sounds like a recipe for an uncomfortable and sad examination of youthful angst, it is not. In fact, the opening night audience were often laughing uproariously at the characters and their numerous peculiar qualities.
Part of the reason the cast works so well is the combination of actors familiar with the world of Putnam along with those performing it for the first time. Schein acted as William at the North Coast Repertory Theatre’s (NCR) staging and Errington previously portrayed contestant Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere at NCR. They are able to balance kooky humor with moments of emotional sympathy. Not an easy thing to do when wearing intentionally dorky costumes designed by Roslyn Lehman.
Koppman, Amy Perkins and Shaun Tuazon-Martin each have at least one standout musical number that leaves lasting impression. Their handling of William Finn’s music and lyrics set to pianist, Dr. Terry O’Donnell’s, surprisingly understated musical direction help them turn what could have been cartoony supporting roles into fully rounded individuals.
Geno Carr, Nancy Snow Carr and Benjamin Roy also seem to be having a lot of fun depicting the adults at the competition. They are given some of the sharpest dialogue of Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony Award winning book.
Sadly, actress Rae K. Henderson could not play the stern highflyer, Marcy Park, on opening night due to a broken foot. In her place, understudy Kelly Derouin shined, especially when singing and dancing to Jill Gorrie’s hilarious choreography during the lively song “I Speak Six Languages.”
Part of the appeal of every showing is the deliberate inclusion of volunteer audience members playing in the bee. The participants were good sports, even when fictional embarrassing facts about their lives were being shared with spectators.
Founder and Producing Artistic Director Emeritus of Moonlight Stage Productions, Kathy Brombacher, directs with a madcap pace cramming a lot of material into a nearly two hour rendition. So much action happens, that it can be easy to forget that practically every scene takes place at a school gymnasium.
As more students get eliminated, a couple of sequences towards the end might not work for everyone. “The I Love You Song” is the one truly sad tune in the entire story. Some will be on the verge of tears while others might be baffled by the sudden change of tone. Regardless of one’s feelings, there is no denying that Errington, Snow Carr and Roy sing wonderfully together and that Curtis Mueller’s lighting design provides a serious contrast from the rest of the zippy evening.
The only major structural problem is that the battle between the last two finalists goes on for a few minutes too long. While this has been more of an issue with the original intermissionless Broadway version, it is less of a problem at Intrepid because of a 15-minute break. This provides a breather before the second half of the night.
As a touching and ingenious epilogue occurs, it becomes clear that the underdogs still have not lost their appeal after 10 years. Artistic Director, Sean Yael-Cox, and Producing Artistic Director, Christy Yael-Cox, deserve a pat on the back for a highly successful season.
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