Since its debut in 2005, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn) has become a popular production for regional theatre companies and audiences alike. Over the years, the North Carolina Triangle has been no exception to Spelling Bee love, and this past weekend North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre joined in the fun with its own shining production.
Spelling Bee follows the progress of six adolescent contestants as they vie to be the Putnam County Spelling Bee champ. Some, like the bumbling Leaf Coneybear and the shy and retiring Olive, seem unlikely prospects, while confident Marcy Parks and William Barfee (it's pronounced bar-FAY) seem to have been bred from birth to take the title. As the contestants divulge in musical anecdotes how they arrived at the contest, whether by befriending a dictionary or by forceful coaching from their parents, we learn that the three adults in the room have struggles of their own. The host of the Bee, Ms. Rosa Lisa Peretti, continues to bask in the glow of her spelling bee title from twenty years ago. Meanwhile, quippy Vice Principal Panch seems to be trying to redeem himself from a mysterious embarrassment at a previous Bee. Adding to the Bee's eccentricities, comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney provides a unique perspective as a recovering criminal completing his community service. Through the course of the show, we see the characters' individual stories and desires clash and intertwine in comical, and sometimes poignant, ways.
Set in the singular space of a school, the technical challenges of this one-act musical are manageable, making Spelling Bee an excellent choice for volunteer-based non-profits like NRACT. The production's technical designers have used simplicity to create a strong design. Set designer Mike Anderson's simple school gymnasium, adorned with Miyuki Su's painted banners* boasting the Bee's 25th anniversary, immediately informs us of the small-town setting. The space is realistic and workable for the nine actors (and the three audience participants who join them) as they execute director Yvonne Anderson's efficient blocking and transitions. Lighting designers Victoria Barnes and Anthony West have programmed distinct cues and washes of color for flashback sequences that animate the stage as actors move set pieces seamlessly between musical numbers. Costume designer Rachel McKay has constructed a cohesive design that clearly conveys each character's personality and relates them to present day with details such as a familiar "equality" t-shirt on politically active spelling bee contestant Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre. The relevance was strengthened with quick references to the current political climate and the most recent GOP debates. Clearly, the production team members did their homework.
In reading his thoughtful program note, it became clear that musical director Craig Johnson did his homework as well. His understanding of the piece combined with the strength of a talented cast resulted in a mighty fine performance. Maribeth McCarthy embraced the boldness of the nostalgic Bee host Ms. Peretti. She and the versatile New York transplant Nick Izzio (Mitch Mahoney, Logainne's Dad and Olive's Dad) seemed to lead the ensemble vocally. Their trio with Randi Winter (who played a perfectly modest Olive Ostrovsky) was a vocal highlight of the performance. The full ensemble supported one another and shone individually with the often-complex vocal score. Jay Dolan and Dan Hawkins foiled well as the defending champ/Boy Scout Chip Tolentino and the quirky cape-wearing underdog Leaf Coneybear, respectively. Curtis Scott Brown embodied the stuffy, sometimes surly William Barfee, and Aubrey Comperatore was a delight as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre. Though she seemed to be battling some vocal injury or fatigue, Elizabeth Anderson maintained her energy through Marcy Park's physical solo, "I Speak Six Languages." Dustin Britt's personality as the lanky Vice Principal Panch was spot-on and hilarious. With a cast comprised of such talented, humble entertainers, audiences should have no problem relating to at least one misfit on stage. At a steady clip, timing just less than two hours, Spelling Bee makes for an entertaining night for all ages.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through Sunday, March 20. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.
*Edited/corrected 3/7/16: The banners and sign were provided by a professional company; Miyuki Su painted the set.