THEATER REVIEW: ‘Bee’ here now earns good words for all involved

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” / Theater Barn

IT’S ALL ABOUT WINNING, isn’t it? A spelling bee exists to teach children to compete, compete, compete! That’s how we Americans know who is worth something and who is disposable. Just ask the Prez.

At the Theater Barn, six neurotic, high IQ youngsters (played by adults) demonstrate their adeptness with “I” and “Q” and the other twenty-four letters of the alphabet in exotic combinations.

Adults playing kids could get icky, but it never does in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” It doesn’t because of the tart, free-wheeling imaginations of its creators, starting with a theater group’s improv led by Rebecca Feldman, a book by Rachel Sheinkin, an appealing score by William Finn (which had an especially well-functioning brain attached to its composition), and clever Finn lyrics. (Who cares if the lyricist must have consulted the “Unabridged Rhyming Dictionary” and employed every rhyme listed there under the word “erection”? No, he wasn’t talking about buildings.)

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at The Theater Barn in New Lebanon through September 2 includes Paul Urriola and Alexa Renee. Photo contributed

Funnies keep pummeling the audience like tennis balls from the practice machine. To those of us who love to laugh, that’s golden.

Director/choreographer Marc de la Concha ought to get some sort of statue to take home for this one. Actors roll in and out of designs that are pleasing and which seem inevitable. Characterizations are clear and lightly nuanced. How a person choreographs a number called “Pandemonium” is a mystery; but de la Concha does it, oxymoronically, with a sure and orderly hand–as he appears to do most everything.

“Spelling Bee” allows each cast member some moments center stage, and it’s difficult to choose stand-outs. Christy Yin as Marcy has the strongest number called “I Speak Six Languages,” and the six languages are only the beginning of her list of accomplishments. My personal favorites were baton-twirling and the splits. (We won’t tell the Prez what she decides about winning.) The most tender moments come from Alexa Renee as Olive, a child with parents who are almost always absent without leave. The most huggable is Xavier McKnight as Coneybear, who flips out to la-la-land to access correct spellings, but keeps insisting that he is “Not That Smart.”

In many productions, the couple who run the spelling bee are unsympathetic characters. Not so in this production. Both Alexandra Foley as Rona and Travis C. Brown as Vice Principal Panch are quite huggable. Brown turns in an especially excellent portrayal of the ironic giver-of-obscure-words, who, almost successfully, is functioning on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The mini-orchestra, led by music director Ollie Townsend, fully supports the singers, yet maintains a kind of transparency that fits the Finn score. An adventurous variety of sounds come from the keyboard, and the vocal arrangements provide singers with lots of meaty, linear togetherness, which is a virtue that not every musical provides.

The practice of “jobbing” in actors for specific roles has almost eliminated the existence of “repertory companies.” So the fact that local audiences had the pleasure of seeing a number of Theater Barn’s cast members in three different musicals, demonstrating their considerable versatility, has been a nice summer gift.

“Spelling Bee” is like a really good meal: almost endlessly repeatable. This year, Theater Barn has offered a musical menu of quality repeatables, with “Pump Boys,” “She Loves Me,” and “Spelling Bee.” It’s enough to make one eager to find out what will be their choices for next season. (How much cream can they keep skimming from the top of the repertoire?)

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs though September 2. Tickets are available at 518-794-8989 or at www.thetheaterbarn.org.

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