THEATER REVIEW: The ‘Spelling Bee’ is nearly letter-perfect

Ghent Playhouse/ “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

WHO CAN RESIST a bunch of smart kids, exposing their drives, damages, sophistication and innocence via some good show music and snappy second-millennium dialogue?

The success of it depends on straightforward delivery of the material and rigorous avoidance of anything “cutesy.” This Ghent Playhouse cast does it, mostly, with charming gusto.

The actors are actually twenty-somethings, I think, a fact that the audience quickly forgets after the first few minutes. To us, they are kids.

The amateur psychology in this piece works fine. A waspy, rigid Marcy Park finally breaks out from her addiction to perfection. (It is deliciously played by ChristineLee Mackerer.) Dylan LeSage is irresistible as the contestant trying to discipline his penis in spite of that girl in the audience. Caroline Fairweather, as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere–yeah, two dads–is touchingly earnest in her efforts to meet double “winner” expectations. (Did I really hear one of the gay dads refer to her birth mother as “the BM”? I hope not.)

Joe Sicotte deserves the can’t-lose role of super-smart, super-obnoxious, super-damaged, super-sad Barfee. In addition to delivering the character, Sicotte hints at a singing voice of really pleasing musicality and timbre. More, please.

The simple honesty of Samantha Conte as Olive Ostrovsky, a parentally-deprived girl-wonder, is the emotional peak of the show. She is utterly loveable.

They are all loveable, with the possible exception of Sam Reilly’s almost-loveable Leaf Coneybear. Reilly’s acting work is a good thing; but director Rachel Sheffer has allowed it to become too much of a good thing, landing uncomfortably over the top, sometimes drawing focus where it does not belong, and leaving the character in some play other than the one in progress.

The adults:

Monica Bliss’ nice energy as the spelling bee’s adult host is marred by agitated hands that make everything she sings seem to be about hands. Paul Murphy gives the Vice Principal’s contrasting warmth and serious neurosis a real life and some good audience laughs. Michael Meier, who always brings his good singing to Ghent musicals, is fine—though wasted in several different, mostly thankless roles.

The score is an excellent mix of show-biz/musical tradition and just enough innovation to keep your ears perked. It’s fun to hear the music sometimes following non-symmetrical lyrics–without ever turning into boring recitative; and composer and lyricist William Finn’s rhythmic and harmonic surprises tickle without jolting anyone with self-consciousness.

Music director Catherine Schane-Lydon deserves to be on the front page of this program. (This is, after all, a musical, and you’ve got her, Ghent. Flaunt her!) She not only plays a mean keyboard, but she has taken a group of voices (some good and some indifferent) and built top-notch ensemble numbers. She has made Finn’s nice duet writing especially shiny. Furthermore, she and the American musical in general deserve something besides tinny electronic instruments with which to realize scores.

In that choice, Ghent is merely following the economics-driven Broadway/off-Broadway practice of recent decades: minimize the “orchestra” and tuck it off stage, or deep under the stage, or in another room (!), with only TV monitors to connect it with the stage. Come on guys. These are “musicals.” Give us the music.

Anyway, at the end of the play, by the time the cast repeats its goodbye song—this time to us, the audience–we are sent off feeling intensely connected to these kids. That’s a very good thing for theater to do.



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