CENTERVILLE — The CenterPoint Theatre’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee tickled my funny bone relentlessly. I had no idea musicals could be as funny as stand up comedy. With music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, the story line— six awkward middle school students competing in a spelling bee run by three equally awkward adults—seems like a strange topic for a musical. Directed by Josh Richardson, the story is also about the growth and lessons that come with growing up.
My expectations were set high as I walked into the theatre and saw Scott Van Dyke’s set design, with its whimsy and attention to detail. Van Dyke’s set was built to make adults looks like children. The over-sized gym doors and the bleachers sized so adult feet dangle off the floor was done without looking cartoony. There was also a slight skewing in the horizontal lines of the stage that gave it a fishbowl effect. This effect played in perfectly with this show, because much of the action happened where the characters were on the spot. Additionally, some of the set pieces were movable and were integrated into the choreography during the song, “Pandemonium.”
The choreography by Kristi Curtis was phenomenal throughout the show. The cast executed it with energy and precision. “Pandemonium,” “Magic Foot,” “Woe is Me,” “Spelling Montage,” “I Speak Six Languages,” and “Second” were especially entertaining. The choreography fit the show well: it was fun, quirky, and had so much variety. The hand slapping choreography on the phrase, “be remarkably adroit in social situations,” fit the lyrics, characters, and theme of the show and was something I hadn’t seen before. During the song, “Second,” when Olive and William dance a dramatic but earnest duet complete with a touchingly awkward lift was another instance of the choreography’s fun quirkiness. The choreography song after song was so good that when there wasn’t much movement in a musical number, it called attention to itself. The energy and humor in, “My Unfortunate Distraction,” could have been improved by more choreography, and an opportunity was missed to drive home the emotion and theme of the whole show in the song, “The I Love You Song.”
Also deserving of high praise is the lighting design. Jordan Fowler was able to give a clear and distinct effect when the action on stage froze so the spotlighted actor could re-live their past and give the viewer insight into their character. Even with a diverse cast of characters, the lighting set the mood with both subtle and not-so-subtle changes, such as the different colors in the windows of the gym. The lighting was a partner in the choreography with various Gobos dancing across the stage, such as in, “Pandemonium,” and, “Spelling Montage.” Throughout the show, the lighting contributed to the energy. Well done to the many technicians and the stage managers, Todd Perkins, and Michele McGarry for the great execution of so many light and sound cues.
There were a few misses that could be attributed to opening night. There seemed to be some trouble with the sound. From where I was sitting, all the sound seemed to be coming from stage left. The microphones seemed to be turned up all the way or unbalanced with the accompaniment so that during musical numbers, the vocals were sometimes blown out or distorted. Several of the actors’ lines and even some sound cues were drowned out by the audience’s laughter. The cast needed to appreciate just how funny they are and let the audience laugh a little longer before continuing.
The vocals in this production were high quality across the board. Katelyn Johnson’s singing as Mindy Mahoney during, “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor,” had so much depth and soul. Her control and power during the embellishments at the end of the song were especially good. The harmonies of the ensemble were tight throughout, such as during all of the, “Goodbye,” songs. When Jake Heywood joined “The I Love You Song,” the harmony of the trio was beautiful.
Several actors had to sing with their character’s unique mannerisms. Savanna Hansen playing Logainne Schwartzandgrubenneire had to sing and act with a thick lisp. Savanna Hansen did it in a way that brought out the humor and the humanity of the character, especially in the song, “Woe is Me.” Similarly, Trevor Hansen played the zany and multi-faceted Leaf Coneybear with great commitment. In his, “I’m Not That Smart,” I was delighted with how Trevor Hansen used his voice and the choreography to switch so quickly between all the emotions and personalities of the Leaf character. Emily Woods’s character Marcy Park did something similar in her song. “I Speak Six Languages.” The choreography included all of Park’s many accomplishments from classical piano to ribbon twirling to gymnastics and more. Woods did them all while singing effortlessly, even when karate chopping a piece of wood in half. Aaron Linford sang the congested William Barfeé convincingly. Linford used his whole body to show the stagnation of his character. When he sang, “Magic Foot,” and, “Second,” Linford excelled in showing more depth to the Barfeé character. Linford opened up his face and physicality to show a vulnerable and endearing William. At the end, when William wins the spelling bee, Linford was so invested in the character that it looked like he actually cried. It was emotionally moving.
Alexandra Rae Kalaher played a strong supporting Rona Lisa Perritti and Brandon Green’s Douglas Panch was the right blend of nice and creepy, even though I couldn’t see him at all during the spelling because he was right behind the microphone. The two had great chemistry.
The lonely Olive Ostrovsky was played by Taneesa Wright. Wright’s portrayal of Olive showed Olive’s innocence and sadness through her physicality: a forward posture, hunched shoulders, and squinting through the bangs in her eyes. I would have liked to see Wright open up physically as the character opens up emotionally. I enjoyed Wright’s dulcet vocals. However, she was most effected by the sound issue. I lost more of her words than some of the other singers. Her acting and vocals in, “My Friend, the Dictionary,” were charming. However in the end of the story, I failed to connect to Olive’s character. Almost all of the characters grow throughout the show. Several come to important realizations during their songs. But the song, “The I Love You Song,” doesn’t have any realizations. It’s just sad. There is irony in Olive’s parents singing over and over, “I Love You,” but not actually showing Olive any love. There was clear desperation in Wright’s vocals, but I still didn’t connect to the character. I love stories where characters have personal power, and Olive seemed more of a victim. This problem seems to be largely a problem with the script and less of a directing or acting issue.
The show ends with many delightful moments. Wright and Linford portray growth during, “Second,” as Olive and William develop their friendship. Their chemistry was sweet. The final choreography and ensemble were enjoyable. The epilogue was extra fun, because I got to find out what happens to all the characters afterward. While I walked away from the show impressed at the quality of the production and with a mouth that hurt from so much laughing, I could have also walked away more deeply inspired. As it was, I was touched by a few plucky kids making the most of their awkward phase.
I recommend this show for those with a sense of humor that includes the kind of potty jokes expected from middle school. The laughs are broader than bodily functions, but there is a whole song that references an erection although doesn’t actually say it (“My Unfortunate Distraction”). This production is tamer than the Broadway version to fit the more conservative values of the community. They’ve taken out profanity and some of the more crude humor. This show is for those who can relate to the plight of puberty and who enjoy good music and a lot of laughs.