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'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' at Theatre 3
by Jerome Weeks 1 Oct 2009

The hit Broadway musical with adults playing young spelling contestants gets its local stage premiere. The showtunes can be as earnest and cute as a PBS kids show, and the singing is ragged. But the humor is absolutely wicked. Plus, Theatre 3’s intimate stage puts you there in the gym. This one’s sure-fire. It’ll win a big audience.


B. J. Cleveland, Alexandra Valle, John Garcia (l to r)

  • Lawson Taitte’s review for the Dallas Morning News
  • KERA radio review:
  • Expanded online review:

SONG: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

“My parents keep on telling me,
Just being here is winning,
although I know it isn’t so.
But it’s a very nice, very, very nice,
Very, very nice beginning.”

As you might tell by that excerpt from the original cast recording, The 25h Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee wants to be a very nice — very, very nice — musical. The hit Broadway show is as earnest and cheery and sticky-cute as an after-school special. Composer William Finn has actually written songs for kids’ programs, and whether several of his numbers here are intended purely as spoofs is not always clear.

Bruce Coleman directed and Terry Dobson music-directed the Theatre 3 production, which is the local stage premiere of Putnam County. It has some ragged singing, and the choreography isn’t much, but then it never really was all that much, even on Broadway. Part of the difficulty lies in devising dance moves for much of the show that even participating audience volunteers can follow — without injury. So things are a little Hokey-Pokey-ish for the first half.

No, what has generally made The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee such a delight is writer Rachel Sheinkin’s wickedly funny script. This isn’t a war of words. It’s a war of nerds. The show plunks these young overachievers and sweet little misfits into our competitive culture, where sports rule, where reality TV has turned talent and weight loss and intelligence and private life and dating into public matters for spectacle and humiliation. In addition to spelling crepuscule, the kids must wrestle with issues of self-definition (we are not automatons, one insists), looming puberty, acceptance by family or peers and just how much value they should attach to a competition that — like life itself — doesn’t necessarily reward the best.

It’s a measure of the show’s earnest intentions — despite its satiric humor — that the spellers are a careful cross-section: three girls, three boys, a blue-collar kid, a minority kid (Asian-American), a child raised by gay parents, etc. Although Putnam County has fun taking jabs at spelling-bee culture and the foibles of obsessive-compulsive smarties (and speech impediments and ethnic stereotypes), the message of inclusiveness is pretty plain. They may be workaholics and wannabe-Spellchecks, the show says, but they deserve to become happy adults, find love, collect cats. And sometimes, even go on to the nationals.

Putnam County fits exceptionally well at Theatre 3 — even better than it did on Broadway — because the theater’s intimate, in-the-round space can make us feel as if we really are in a school gymnasium. That intimacy is underscored by the show’s participation gimmick. Before curtain time, audience members can volunteer to compete onstage with the kids. And that, too, underscores the show’s feeling of inclusiveness. See how helpful these kids can be to the clueless adults.

Putnam County Spelling Bee 2Chad Peterson, Arianna Movassagh, Cleveland, Valle, Garcia and Megan Kelly Bates (l to r)

Comic standouts in the cast include Paul J. Williams who plays the school vice principal as a grumpier version of John Hodgman. Hodgman is the funny, pudgy, sadsack PC guy in those great Apple ads on TV (and, of course, he’s a humorist in his own write). Williams has a deadpan weariness (disguising an explosive anger) that contrasts nicely with Amy Mills as the eager contest host and devoted spelling-bee fan re-living her childhood success. (A welcome comic touch in Mills’ performance. On Broadway, when her character relayed hilariously bizarre and inappropriate background info about contestants as they stepped up to the mike, she simply read it off like a school announcement. But Mills whispers it in hushed tones as if she’s the color commentator at a televised golf match: “William Barfee has a sea anemone circus in his basement.”) Mills also has one of the stronger, more assured singing voices in the cast.

Kudos to Darius-Anthony Robinson for shifting gears among several roles, shifting so capably I didn’t realize it was the same actor for a scene or two. Then there’s B. J. Cleveland as Chip, an eager, bespectacled Boy Scout. On Monday night, Cleveland silently swooned and flirted with a female audience member seated next to him — mostly by making goo-goo eyes and leaning toward her as though he wanted his head patted. It was so perfectly goofy and sweetly boy-like — and then he turned around and delivered Chip’s bitter, losing battle with his own rampant sex drive. It’s a winning performance, and typical of the show’s laughs-first, poignance-second format.

Yes, the humor in Putnam County does turn adult. But it’s that humor about acceptance and rejection that gives this spelling bee its sting.