Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander
Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
When The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee appeared on Broadway in April of 2005, it was quickly nominated for six Tony awards. It won two, including Best Book. A slightly quirky, offbeat look at the lives of precocious spelling bee contestants as seen during a county competition, this is not your traditional musical. Its writers and script are highly encouraging of improvisation, and the play itself is audience-interactive, character-driven, and slightly irreverent.
When the opportunity to review the show presented itself, I was immediately intrigued. Besides my obvious interest due to a love of the theater (and musicals especially), this particular play was appealing because of the memories it evoked from my distant past. Because the truth is... I am a spelling N-E-R-D. If you were to rifle thoroughly enough through my closet, you would unearth a file box containing a number of medals inscribed with the names of county and regional bees. You might even find a state plaque and a trophy or two. And, were you to inspect the contents of my unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary with the curiously well-worn cover, you might discover a system of personal codes—a series of dots and crosses next to individual words. Though I have succeeded in suppressing the more obvious and annoying aspects of my fixation (I no longer correct people unless they request it, much to the relief of all who knew me as a child), I still sometimes mentally shudder when I see a particularly creative butchering of a commonly misspelled word. This is not because I think that those who misspell words are stupid; rather, it's because there is little more beautiful than the written word and, in my mind, the intricacies of letter placement are part of that beauty. A misspelled word is, quite simply, ugly. So imagine my glee at spending an entire evening surrounded by people who share my obsession!
“Now, now,” you'll say. “Those were characters, not real people. You're still a bit strange.” My response: “I can pretend if I want to. SO THERE.” But the beauty of Runway Theatre's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is that it is not too difficult to pretend.
Runway presents the play in its black box theater, which provides the perfect level of intimacy between the actors and its audience, allowing humor to accurately hit its mark. The set is simple, yet skillfully recreates a school gymnasium, complete with bleachers bearing school colors and posters championing the mascot—the porcupine. For the bee itself, walls have been festooned with pennant streamers, and a judge's table has been set up next to the gym entrance. One particularly interesting piece is the rotating platform that allows the bleachers to transform into an Indian ashram during one of the final numbers. For the remainder of the play, all of the action takes place within the gymnasium, which allows the talents of the cast to take focus.
Vahn Phollurxa plays Chip Tolentino, the incumbent spelling champion. Phollurxa brings a certain level of sensitivity to his character; one particularly noteworthy example of this is the manner in which his face falls and shoulders slump when another child remarks that he is not memorable. Phollurxa is also able to evoke a good laugh from the audience during a particularly unfortunate moment in his spelling bee career (I won't say more to avoid spoilers), and his stuttering and awkward mannerisms accentuate his discomfort and dismay. His singing is melodic and sincere, and he is never quite as endearing as when expressing disgruntled consternation about his intermission activities.
Chelsea Monty's version of Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the highly-strung textbook stage child, elicits sympathy from the audience. Monty's subtly pained expression and tense posture hint at her character's inner conflict. Additionally, her preening mannerisms and the way in which she inclines her head expectantly wonderfully express her high level of anxiety. Monty also impressively maintains a fabricated speech impediment throughout the show, which is a feat in itself.
Cole Cloutier is Leaf Coneybear, the sensitive and insecure dreamer of the spellers, and he will steal your heart. His ad-libbed moments are some of the funniest bits in the show, and his portrayal of Coneybear is refreshingly innocent. Moments that stand out include the enamored tousling of his beloved curly hair and his fascination with observing audience members through the hole in his number placard. Cloutier never breaks character, continuously performing one original action after the next while the bee progresses around him. The result is a treat to watch and creates one of the most endearing characters I've encountered in a long time. His vocal performance is also strong.
Jason Solis's performance as William Barfee, the obnoxious loner, is solid. It's easy to play Barfee as overly obnoxious or to make his sinus issues too off-putting, but Solis does a good job of balancing Barfee's overt confidence with a subtle display of insecurity, creating a sympathetic character and eliciting many laughs. Additionally, Solis displays great agility during his dance scenes and his vocal endurance is admirable, making “Magic Foot” a highly memorable number.
Faith Lawrence is Marcy Park, the overachieving private school girl who is “all business.” With her stiff-backed posture and lack of facial expression, Lawrence's Marcy is intimidating and robotic. While this creates a strong character for the majority of her performance, it is troubling that there is little discernible emotion when her character changes course. Despite this slight hiccup, Lawrence's impressive gymnastic skills make for a very convincing rendition of her solo number, “I Speak Six Languages,” and her vocal stamina is superb.
Robin Clayton plays Olive Ostrovsky, the shy newcomer. Clayton expertly expresses Olive's uncertainty through numerous mannerisms, including a shuffling gait, constant nervous rearrangement of her pigtails, and a hunched posture that suggests she wants to be swallowed up by her overalls. For all this, Clayton's version of Olive has an indomitable will that is often expressed through her stubborn independence. One particularly noteworthy example of this is when she refuses to submit to the moderator's adjustment of her pigtails. Clayton's performance of choreography is also strong, and a moment in which she and Barfee waltz is especially amusing. And despite her character's timidity, Clayton can certainly hold her own when she opens her mouth—her vocal tone is rich and striking with her lower registers being particularly strong. Even so, her solo number, “The 'I Love You' Song” is one of the most memorable songs in the show, not just because of the beauty of the music and the strong singing, but because her balled fists and intensity so movingly express the difficulty with which she is holding herself together.
Elizabeth McWhorter is Rona Lisa Perretti, the bee's moderator. McWhorter has a lovely voice and blends beautifully with other cast members in the show. Her gentle mannerisms and placid expressions diminish her character's intensity, but emphasize Perretti's sweet nature. The various “Rona Moment” numbers are convincing and heart-warming, and her “everywoman” performance gives the audience members someone to relate to amid the idiosyncratic behaviors of the other characters.
Vince Connor is Vice Principal Douglas Panch, the slightly sinister foil to Rona Lisa Perretti. Connor's blustery delivery and dejected stance emphasize the character's seething nature and provide a good contrast to Rona Lisa's sweetness.
Caleb Cothren plays Mitch Mahoney, the bee's ex-con “bouncer.” Cothren's version of Mitch is less stoic than other performances I have seen, and while this detracts from the early mystery surrounding his character, it adds to the impression of his kindness. Portions of Cothren's performance, particularly when he is escorting contestants off stage, seem a bit rushed, but overall he gives a substantial performance.
Chris Pettit and Drake Leach as Dan Schwartz and Carl Grubenierre, Logan's overbearing stage fathers, have great energy and are memorable despite the size of their roles. A moment involving Pettit and a can of hairspray stands out as particularly funny.
Noelle Salter as Olive's mom proves to have a clear and powerful voice during “The 'I Love You' Song.” Unfortunately, the gusto with which the song begins somewhat detracts from the build to a powerful end. Still, the combination is striking, and Salter certainly adds considerably to the performance. Greg Kozakis is Olive's Dad, and the lovely timbre of his voice provides a good counterpoint to Salter's rich soprano.
Erych Walter plays Jesus, and his performance, though small, is humorous and well-timed.
An additional smattering of honorary cast members are audience members turned spellers, and their inclusion both increases audience investment and offers cast members considerable opportunity to ad-lib. This is a brilliant piece of the show, but must be handled carefully. Unfortunately, the night I attended, one audience participant who seemed to be a would-be actor had memorized the entire show thereby ruining the joke and distracting from the brilliance of the main cast.
Costume Designer Jessica Cothren follows the lead of the original Broadway production with certain characters, while adding novel touches to others. While Olive, Marcy, and Chip are clad in expected styles, William is a bit less polished without his customary necktie, and Logan is a bit more youthful and groomed in her floral dress. Of particular brilliance is Cothren's treatment of Leaf Coneybear, who is a bit more of a free spirit in this production than in others. His personality is expertly captured in his socks and sweater, which appear as though he may have just finished them moments before arriving at the bee.
Lighting Designer Scott W. Davis uses lighting not only to highlight actors as they perform individual numbers, but also to add visual complexity. Blue gels are used to evoke the emptiness of the gym prior to the start of the show, and, as the contestants begin to arrive, they change to warm amber. Spots are used effectively to indicate moments where characters are stepping outside of the main plot to speak to the audience. The lighting in “The 'I Love You' Song” is of particular interest and makes the dreamy quality of Olive's internal world shine. Side lighting causes the face of Olive's father to be partially cloaked in shadow, while a hazy purple glow illuminates and emphasizes the ephemeral nature of Olive's mother. In this scene, lighting greatly adds to the emotional component, though it was momentarily distracting when a cue was dropped and then remembered halfway through the song.
Musical direction is outstanding, and the cast and live musicians prove their skill by performing many complicated songs without a clear line of sight due to the hidden placement of the band. Sound design is expert enough to render itself virtually invisible, and the technical prowess of the crew means that there are no interruptions in the audience's enjoyment. Choreography is detailed, but seems effortless and showcases each performer. A combination of inspired lighting and choreography during “Pandemonium” and a time lapse near the middle of the show add amusement and great visual interest.
Strong technical teams combined with cast members who can make the most enigmatic and eccentric of characters lovable make Runway Theatre's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee a fun and thought-provoking experience. After hearing the long menu of words contestants must spell all night, you may also find yourself quite humbled. Or perhaps strangely buoyed up and nostalgic. Regardless, don't miss this one, or you'll be disqualified.
THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
215 North Dooley Street
Grapevine, TX 76051
Runs through August 9th.
Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 3:00 pm.
Regular ticket prices are $20.00 for adults and $15.00 for students and seniors.
For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.runwaytheatre.com, or call the box office at 817-488-4842.