The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Conceived by Rebecca Feldman with additional material by Jay Reiss. Directed by Tim Fort.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jason Yau, Tracy Michaelidis, Logan Lipton (behind), Piper Goodeve, Ka-Ling Cheung, Randy Blair; photo: Hubert Schriebl
Piper Goodeve as Logainne; photo: Hubert Schriebl
"How I wish you were home...."
Children are just as competitive as adults and theater folk are even more competitive than either other group. In the Weston Playhouse Theatre Companyís production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" all three are put in play simultaneously. This is the third time Iíve seen this show and Weston has a slight edge on the piece at the moment, simply because it allows that sense of "Me, Me" to downplay a little bit and allow other things to come to the forefront.
I have no problem with kids competing for a prize. I did it myself and I did it in several ways. I know the thrill of the win and the damage of the defeat. I know what itís like to seemingly disappoint a parent and I remember well the joy of knowing that I could have won if Iíd wanted to, but I made a decision to lose something someone else wanted for me. All of these experiences are part of this remarkable show.
It is remarkable for something else as well. More than any other show written and produced in the past decade, this musical may be what assures live theater a place in the future. It is inspiring young people to come to a play, the cheer the winners and losers, to participate in an unusual expression of their own feelings. It gives them more than a fanciful Hogwarts school gives them. More and more this show may bring us, not our new actors, but our new audiences.
On a wonderful, solid set designed by Howard C. Jones, the kids of Putnam County, winners all (or most), compete for regional championships in spelling. They range in age, size and type. One is home-schooled. One is super-Asian-American. One is a boy scout with lots of merit badges. One is a neglected and abused child. One is the off-spring of two fathers and an overachiever.
As Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the last on the list, Piper Goodeve lisps her way through the competition and the peripheral relationships she develops there while one of her fathers encourages her to cheat to win. Goodeve is the most touching Logainne Iíve seen so far. Her simple humanity (she is also the youngest child in the competition) is touching and her odd situation is beautifully shown in her body language and her facial expressions. Goodeve is a winner just for doing the part so naturally.
Randy Blairís William Barfee is much more subtle than any Iíve seen. He has a frightening gentleness that indicates a hidden volcano being held down inside him. Itís a grand performance.
Tracy Michaelidis plays Olive, the girl without the entrance fee in a plain, straightforward manner that almost makes you want to cry. She is the misfit whose parents have basically deserted her and we feel her pain as she saves a seat for the father who wonít show up and dreams of a mother who wonít come home. Like her mom, Olive may never be at home again, but her decision to make a friend rather than make a killing is beautifully played.
Jason Yau was a subtle Chip, the kid who discovers puberty isnít something just to spell. His underplaying robs the audience of a laugh or two, but at the same time he also brings us the honesty and embarrassment of failure.
Logan Liptonís Leaf Coneybear was also less an exaggeration and more of a real oddball child. His declaration that he is smart, something he could never truly claim before was beautiful and his secondary father as one of Logainneís dads was a wonderful turn-around.
Ka-Ling Cheung played Marcy Park, too intelligent to be a child, too childish to be an adult, too sweet inside to be mean for long. Cheung milks every moment with a growing degree of facial and body language that leads her character, rather than just following the script, to a wonderfully illogical conclusion. It was a lovely performance.
The three adults were also more subtly played than in previous productions. Kudos to Susan Haefner, C. Mingo Long and Marcus Neville for their subtle and clever characterizations. The reality here in Weston is that there were no caricatures drawn; all of the people were real, just as real as Alison Spahn, one of the audience participants who outlasted all the others and withstood the ribbing about her polka-dot clothing. Her blush and her adorable reactions to things said or done were just as real as those of any of the actors playing children around her.
Tim Fort has directed all this and kept the action real. Whether it is the odd reality of the set that helped the actors, or vice-versa, there was never a trace of pretentiousness or over-acting or under-acting. His pacing was a bit strange at times within a scene, and some of the musical numbers were much less pumped than I anticipated, but the end result was this feeling of actually being at a spelling bee where, for some inexplicable reason, people were singing instead of just spelling and I was having personal flashes of memories not my own. I really loved Fortís approach to this material.
Rachel Kurland has done a perfect job with costumes and the subtle lighting by Kendall Smith might have done a bit more to help the memory/fantasy sequences, but by and large it didnít matter. I knew what was going on. I hope the rest of the audience did too.
The show is unmiked, it seems, so some of the words got a bit lost when actors were upstage, but the unmiked concept is right for the show. It just becomes a matter of playing it and getting voice placement adjusted.
This is a wonderful production of this show, one that brings out elements worth examining, especially if you are a child, a parent or an actor - or any combination of the afore-mentioned. I think that covers everyone.
Spelling Bee plays at the Weston Playhouse through July 25. The playhouse is located at 703 Main Street, Weston, Vermont. For information on tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288.