SALT LAKE CITY – A musical about school children participating in a county-wide spelling bee?. When I first heard of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee back in 2005, I was unimpressed. It seemed to lack drama or import. Then I saw the snippet on the Tony Award broadcast and knew I was wrong. So very wrong. That small tease of the show made me run out to get the cast album on CD. I sat and listened to the score with my wife and we both fell in love with the show, all without ever seeing more of the actual show than what we had seen on that broadcast. I have seen this show once before, but the current version at Pioneer Theatre Company blows that and the Tony snippet out of the water for me.
Pioneer Theatre Company’s artistic director, Karen Azenberg, directed this show with great skill. She created a world where each character has their moment to shine and where even in the surreal world of musical comedy, a very real story is being told. Set design by Daniel Meeker and lighting design by Michael Gilliam contribute to this realistic feel. Thanks to them, the stage looks like every school gymnasium in the state. Every aspect of the production itself fit together like a grand machine and created a flawless setting.
Of course, this all finally depends on the quality of the cast. The characters in this show are all oddballs, misfits or outcasts of one form or another. Overachievers, each with their own set of personal obstacles, whether is it overbearing parents, social anxiety, or the onset of puberty. Yet, this show gives them all the chance to not only shine, but endear. The beauty of this show is not only that it is very funny, but it has tons of heart–thanks to Rachel Sheinkin‘s script and William Finn‘s music and lyrics. Austin Archer as Leaf Coneybear and Kendal Sparks as William Barfèe are truly joyful to watch. Archer imbues Leaf with such a wide-eyed sense of wonder that he is there despite the many times his family has belittled his abilities. And the trance-like state he enters when spelling is a beautiful thing to behold. Sparks creates such a wonderfully dismissive quality in Barfèe particularly the reactions each time his name is mispronounced. (It should be bar-FAY, not BAR-fee.) Yet with all the oddness of these two characters they each have such a sweet wholesomeness that you love them in spite of their quirks. This is true of all the characters.
However, my favorite actor in the show was Erick Pinnick as Mitch Mahoney, the parolee serving his public service hours as Comfort Counselor to the unsuccessful spellers as they leave the stage. The last time I saw this show, the character was played solely for comic effect, but Pinnick gave Mitch such depth and emotion that the part became an integral part of the show. I could single out each member of the cast, as they were all wonderful. I just don’t have the space to do that.
Throughout this review, I keep using words like sweet, wholesome, heart, emotion, etc. That is what really made this production something more. It could have been what we often see in so many theaters: a two-dimensional production that only scratches the surface of the characters and the text. I’ve seen so many different shows where the production values are high, the cast is well rehearsed, the technical aspects of the show come off without a hitch, and it is enjoyable, but it vanishes within a short time of seeing it. This show has all the technical accomplishments of great theatre, but Azenburg and the cast added the final touch that makes theater magic: the soul. Each character has depth; each character has heart, and warmth and emotion.
One final note: Pioneer Theatre Company is performing two versions of the show. On September 18 and 24 they will be performing the original version of the play, which includes some content that some audience members may find too crass or inappropriate. The other nights they are performing a PG-13 rated version developed by the chow creators that changes, in particular, one song and some dialog relating to the onset of puberty. I saw this toned-down version, but I prefer the original, slightly bawdier, version. The changed version works, but it not nearly as funny as the original.
Also, each night four audience members are invited onstage as special spellers. To participate in this, get to the theater early and sign up in the lobby. At the start of the new season for Pioneer Theatre Company, they have given us something that, in a word, is S-U-P-E-R-B!