THEATRE REVIEW: the Theater Barn’s ‘Spelling Bee’ is lively, entrancing, plays perfectly
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Book by Rachel Sheinkin, from a concept by Rebecca Feldman
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Directed and choreographed by Marc de la Concha
“It’s an alphabetter way to spell.”
In the 1941 Paramount film “Birth of the Blues,” there was one new song set in a bevy of jazz and blues standards: “The Waiter and the Porter and the Upstairs Maid” written by Johnny Mercer and sung by Bing Crosby, Mary Martin and Jack Teagarden. This light piece of class-structure fluff altered the mood of the movie musical by introducing its character’s concepts of life and their incidental places within their environment. On stage at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, New York, the William Finn musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is doing the same sort of thing, showing us the structure of a society that encourages, in this instance, a cutthroat, competitive relationship among children from different societal backgrounds.
We have Chip Tolentino, the previous year’s regional winner, hell-bent on repeating his success; and William Barfèe, the previous year’s loser, rudely intent on reversing that decision. There is Marcy Park, speaker of six languages and a sports champion, bred to win at all costs. There is the “substitute” entry, Leaf Coneybear, raised as backward but chronically able to spell words he’s never head of before; and Olive Ostrovsky, child of a broken marriage who only has one true friend: her dictionary. And, of course, we dare not forget the lovely, young Logainne Schwarzengrubenniere, motherless child of a gay couple who’ve trained her to believe that no one likes losers. Taken all in all, along with the adult characters in this show, we are looking at the birth of the blues in life, for there can only be one winner here … or is that true?
This show was developed at Barrington Stage Company in Berkshire County, just over the hill from the Theater Barn. It is one of the most popular musicals available today, produced often and everywhere. It has William Finn’s most accessible, singable score, and provides a lot of laughs along with an occasional sob and throat-choke moment. It is best when played by adults being children, a tradition stretching back to at least Fanny Brice in the Ziegfeld Follies playing Baby Snooks. The Barn is fortunate to have some wonderful young adults in its edition, which plays perfectly and is an ideal finale to its musical series this year.
Director Marc de la Concha keeps the show lively and entrancing by using the set, designed by Anthony Martin, as a launching pad for his “youngsters.” Built slightly overscale and set in a school gymnasium, it helps with the illusion that these actors are all children. Sitting in the bleachers, even a tall actor like Patrick Scholl (Chip) looks younger. This alpha-male character is gloriously played by Scholl and what happens to him, as told in “Chip’s Lament,” is just as funny and charming as Mary Martin’s version of “The Upstairs Maid.” This is an actor with a bright future.
Christy Yin is tall, thin, defiantly typed as the overachieving Asian child, and absolutely engaging. Her Marcy is crisp and clean and as engaging as possible, and her ultimate choice in this competition is right on. She couldn’t be any better. Liz Erardi’s Logainne is a perfect match on the other side of things for Yin’s Marcy. There is no desperation in her interpretation of the role, only an understanding of what it means to be both needy and highly influenced by the needs of others. Both actresses are wonderful singers and actors and make their characters very believable.
Leaf, the ultimate example of a homeschooled child of parents out of the hippie “all we need is love” generation, is perfectly played by Xavier McKnight. Raised to behave naturally, Leaf’s differences are as far from “normal” as can be and his physical reaction to the realization that he “knows that word” is marvelous.
The three adults in the show play very different characters from the “kids” in the show. Levi Squire is the grief counselor, Mitch Mahoney, a recent parolee doing public-service work. Travis C. Brown is Vice Principal Douglas Panch, a man whose emotional overcharge gets him in trouble; and Alexandra Foley plays former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Peretti, a woman whose interest in the goings-on of the kids is darkly colored by her own experiences. All three are wonderful in their roles, and Foley in particular shades her many vocal appearances in this character to emphasize the romance of winning and the blues-inflected reaction to loss. In her work, William Finn sometimes uses the Gershwinesque blue note to great effect.
Olive is wonderfully played by Alexa Renee, whose physical stance, along with her highly autobiographical numbers including “The I Love You Song” in Act Two, make her a standout in an excellent company of performers. This young actress is a fine interpreter of this role and she is not easily forgettable—she will, in fact, remain highly memorable.
As the oddball character physically and vocally, Barfèe is played by Paul Urriola, who gives even his character’s nastiness a certain quality of aggressive charm. He gets to sing the best song in the score, “Magic Foot,” and he does a superb job with it, dancing the realization of what it means to have such a technique on hand in his climb to the top of the heap of spellers.
His appearance, along with the other characters’, is enhanced by the fine costumes designed by David Louder, clothing that helps define each of them, their egos and their places in the world. Ashley Yung’s lighting was most effective and the new sound system in the theater worked to good advantage.
This show will never be my favorite, but it is my favorite Finn show and the company here more than does justice to it. They present a fun-filled evening about the disenfranchised, ruthless world of childhood relationships. This is one of the best productions I’ve seen of this show and certainly worth seeing while you have the chance. You will come out singing and dancing, but be prepared going in for your opportunity to become a kid once again. The Theater Barn truly delivers a hit with this show.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, New York, through Sunday, Sept. 2. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go to theaterbarn.com or call the box office at (518) 794-8989.