Let's get this out of the way at the outset: Red Branch Theatre Company's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is one of the most hilarious shows I have ever seen, and based on the uproarious laughter coming from my fellow audience members, I'm not the only one who feels that way.
The show puts us in the middle of a small-town middle school spelling bee, populated by a cast of overachieving adolescents. William Barfée, played by Dean Davis, is the socially inept nerd with requisite tape on his glasses and a "magic foot" which helps him spell out his words. Davis pulls off the difficult task of making this know-it-all character ultimately sympathetic. Chip is the Boy Scout, played by David Frankenberger, who is all too eager to show off his merit badges, and faces an unexpected and untimely entry into puberty, leading to some of the shows funniest visual gags, played with precision by Frankenberger. Marcy Park, played by Erica Murphy, is the asian girl in the parochial school uniform who speaks multiple languages, plays classical music on multiple instruments, and feels the pressure of always winning everything she enters. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, played by Priscilla Cuellar, is the politically aware girl with two overbearing dads. Drew Gaver plays Leaf Cobeybear, the offbeat oddball from a hippie family, living in a fantasy world of his own, longing for attention. Gaver doesn't so much play the character as he inhabits him, and is an audience favorite. Amy Baughman plays Olive, the sensitive, slightly sad girl whose parents never seem to find the time to be with her. Her lovely rendition of The I Love You Song (joined by cast members Davis and Cobb, showing their range) provides the show with its emotional foundation.
Overseeing the competition are Ms. Perritti, played by Sara Cobb. Perritti is a former Putnam Bee champion and the number one Realtor in the area. Cobb's comic performance is sly and nuanced, never wasting a moment on stage, always fun to watch, even when she's not the center of attention. Jay Michal Gilman gives Vice Principal Panch, who claims to be "in a better place" after several years away from the competition and several adjustments to his diet, the ideal deadpan delivery, especially when he's providing the hilarious definitions for some of the spelling bee words. Mitch Mohoney, played by David Gregory, is the official comfort counselor, an ex-con who hands out juice boxes to the players as they are eliminated from the competition.
Joining the cast onstage are several audience volunteers who participate in the spelling bee, providing the cast with fodder for sharp improvisational comedy. The audience is also encouraged to participate throughout the evening, which adds to the fun.
The story is fairly straight forward, as the contestants find themselves eliminated, to their dismay or relief. We see flashbacks into their pasts, filling in the details of how they got to be here, and what the competition means to each of them.
Director/Choreographer Jenny Male treats the audience to a polished, crisp production, full of smart choices and satisfying subtlety. Although the comedy is certainly broad and the characters almost cartoonish, the cast plays them true, never winking at the audience or letting on that they're in on the joke. This enhances the believability, amplifies the absurdity of the situations, and, perhaps most importantly, grounds them in reality in the moments when the story switches gears and we see the sacrifices they've made to get this far in the bee. Through the laughter, this production has heart. The level at which this cast performs as a true ensemble is remarkable.
Vocally, the cast is strong. Led by Music Director Aaron Broderick, the harmonies are tight and the voices fill the intimate Red Branch Theatre, adding immeasurable energy to the show. This level of vocal precision is a real treat, and something that has become a consistent part of Red Branch Theatre productions.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues its run at Red Branch Theatre
Company through May 1, 2010. If you are a fan of musical comedy, or just someone who loves to laugh until your cheeks hurt, don't miss this outstanding production.
Note - The show contains some mature language and situations, and would likely earn a PG-13 rating.