Somehow, I have managed to avoid seeing a production of The 25th Annual Putnam Counting Spelling Bee, despite the innumerable local productions over the last few seasons in Boston. The music is fun and catchy, and the plot seems like it could provide for an enjoyable, albeit lighthearted, night of theater but I never really felt compelled to actually attend a production. Woodland Theatre Company’s recent production got me interested, however.
Perhaps I enjoyed this production because of the many recognizable performers or maybe that I greatly admire the work that Director Doug Hodge has been doing for the past few seasons down in Medfield. Either way, the musical seemed like an interesting choice to me, as their last several shows have been big-name blockbuster musicals, and Spelling Bee didn’t really appear to fit the mold. It was a good choice, however, as their production embraced the humor of the script, and, in the hands of some very talented performers, sent the audience home laughing.
The musical pits elementary school kids in competition for a very prestigious and storied spelling bee trophy. Each child (all played by adult actors) has his or her own reason for being at the bee and his or her own backstory for how he or she got there. The competition is proctored by Rona Lisa Peretti (Katie McTyre), a former Bee champion, and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Brian Higgins), who returns from a five-year hiatus after an unmentionable “incident.”
Noticeably missing is the third Bee proctor, Mitch Mahoney, who is present as part of his community service and serves as a “comfort counselor.” I later learned that the actor playing Mitch fell ill close to show time, but thanks to some clever rearranging, the show went on unhindered.
Some notable performances emerge as we learn more about the spellers, most notably, Allison Russell’s Logaine Schwartzandgrubenierre, a precocious young girl who seems to be the world’s youngest political activist. Russell’s nimble comic-timing and effective use of a very pronounced lisp had me laughing from beginning to end. Her interactions with her two gay dads and a soapbox rant about Justin Bieber’s current vehicular mishaps were high points for me.
Equally hilarious is Brian Higgins as Vice Principal Panch. Higgins has the difficult task of working with new “guest spellers” each night as members from the audience are drawn up on stage to compete in the Bee alongside the actors. Higgins never misses a beat with his sharp-witted responses to the spellers’ requests for word definitions and usages. The show gets even more hilarious as spellers actually guess impossible words correctly. Higgins stays in control the entire time, however, expertly working within the constructs of the script to squeeze every last ounce of hilarity out of the guest spellers before they are dismissed from the stage.
I have to praise Hodge for his direction of this show. It seems a relatively easy chore, especially when compared to his recent efforts on Les Misérables, A Chorus Line, and The Sound of Music. The show is short, has much fewer characters than the other works, and the music is arguably easier, but the pitfall lies in the humor. It seems like a fine line between embracing it and pushing it a bit too far, a delicate balance between keeping the audience in the palm of your hand and losing them to inside jokes and labored comic timing. Hodge, however, direct his show away from that trap by keeping the pacing rapid and the humor well-timed. Never once did I feel a joke was pushed too hard or an opportunity in the script missed.
I do wish that some of the other production elements lived up to the performances and direction. The sound designer struggled to find a proper balance at times and, had I not known the music prior to seeing the show, I may have missed some of the gimmicks because the band (well-led by Music Director, Chris Holownia) often overpowered the vocalists. Just as disappointing was the choreography, which seemed like pandemonium (no pun intended) and served more to distract the audience than to support the musical numbers.
The show is saved, however, by strong performances and expert timing. Woodland has been putting on consistently strong productions for the last couple seasons now and I look forward to seeing more from them. They close their season with a run of the well-loved classic, Fiddler on the Roof.