SALT LAKE CITY — In Westminster Player’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee the geeks shine, the awkward is celebrated and fun is abundant. This is one show that will have you laughing out loud from start to finish.
The small space of the Dumke Student Theater is put to wonderful use in this intimate presentation. The stage is set as a school gymnasium prepared for the annual spelling bee, whose winner will go on to nationals. The “students” are all winners of their respective bees, with the exception of Leaf Coneybear, who was a second runner-up in his bee. The musical, with book by Rachel Sheinkin, explores their own individual quirks as it progresses. This is mainly done through the inventive score with music and lyrics by William Finn.
The show is a laugh riot. Each unusual word offered for spelling receives a humorous usage in a sentence. For example, “phylactery,” the small leather box strapped to the body in Jewish services gets “Billy, put down that ‘phylactery,’ we’re Episcopalians.” The words that were put into this show are odd, arcane, and most often hilarious. For example, boanthropy (the delusion that one has become an ox) and acouchi (a small Amazonian rodent).
The actors playing the major characters are all, without fail, wonderful. The actors all disappear into the characters they are portraying and you come to appreciate each one with their own troubles and quirks. Brian Gardner as Leaf Coneybear was my favorite. The goofy expression never left his face, and I couldn’t help but laugh every time he stepped to the mike. And when he would suddenly spell the words in an almost Tourette’s syndrome-like trance, I just lost it. It’s hard to pick out just one actor as a favorite, though, because they all shined. Brady Arnold as Chip Tolentino had a stellar turn in “My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament).” It’s one of those moments as a theatergoer that you are laughing so hard, and yet can’t believe that you are laughing at something like this. Also of note is Robin Smith as Comfort Counselor Madge M. Mahoney, who would like to “beat some sense into these kids, but that would violate my parole.” She dispenses comfort and juice boxes to the eliminated constants and has a powerful singing voice. I only wish she had more to sing. Her “Prayer for the Comfort Counselor” is fantastic.
Unfortunately, in every wonderful production there tends to be something that you wish had been better. The sound design was sorely lacking in this show. Whole sections of songs were lost as the sound of the mikes dropped below the music and words and phrases were lost. The worst example was during “I Speak Six Languages.” Melissa Nichol Jenkins as Marcy Park was wonderful, but the middle section of the song was lost through poor balance. She simple couldn’t be heard. The other slight complaint was that bits of dialogue were lost because the actors didn’t hold for laughs.
But those complaints don’t take away from the great fun we had at the show. Also fun is the addition of four audience members as contestants in the bee. They are given relatively easy works to spell, but are then given a word to get them off stage. Opening night, however, one contestant actually spelled correctly the word “catarjunes,” a word made up for the show, defined as “an old Nantucket whaling term; its only known use was in a captain’s log entry which reads, ‘The time of judgment is upon us; the leviathan has come—catarjunes!'” He was then given a much harder word and was eliminated.
This is a great production and great fun. Director Ashley Carlson has created a wonderful world populated by these charming misfits. Hurry to see it as it only runs through Feb. 19th. You will not be disappointed.