OGDEN — The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a delightful musical that entered the scene in 2005. With music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin, and conception by Rebecca Feldman and additional material by Jay Reiss, the show follows the events of a small rural America county spelling bee, where the audience has the joy of getting to know the backstory of kids who compete in such a thing and the adults who encourage it.
Opening their 2022-2023 season, which happens to be their 10th season, Good Company Theatre in Ogden, Utah has brought this production to life in a lively and colorful way. Directed by Heidi Potter Hunt, there is so much to praise about this outstanding production that I only hope I do it justice. First, I have mentioned many times when attending Good Company productions that I am fascinated by their creative use of the nontraditional space they have chosen to turn into a performing arts hall. This terrific set design by Raquel Jackson, whom I discovered is based out of Las Vegas and did her designs remotely, was not only the best Spelling Bee design I have seen, but it also took some of the most challenging parts of Good Company’s set up and made it feel like I was in a miniature gymnasium watching a spelling bee. Part of the charm of this show is the audience participation and the clever connections made through that writing, and Jackson’s set added to that ambiance in an incredible fashion.
Mentioning the word fashion allows me to transition to the superb costuming, conceived by Kyah Green and designed by Alicia Washington. Something I adore about a well done production of Spelling Bee is the strong understanding of the characters, and the costumes by Green and Washington show just how much this production team was connected to each and every character. From the perfect ensemble that overachiever Marci Park, played by Niki Rahimi, wears, to the eclectic combinations of Leaf Coneybear, played by Christian David Clarke, I had no trouble believing that each of these characters (or their overbearing parents) chose the outfits they were wearing. The multitude of colors that the costumes used, as well as the fun hairstyles by makeup and hair designer Daisy Allred, made the entire show a fun visual spectacle.
Spelling Bee is a true ensemble show where no one seems to shine more than anyone else, and all of the characters have a moment or two where they get a chance to endear themselves to the audience. In some productions, one or two players may rise above the rest talent wise, but the players at Good Company were all equally remarkable in their own right. There were a few moments that stood out as my personal favorites. Dre’lan Evans played Mitch Mahoney, the “comfort counselor” who is there doing community service and comforting eliminated spellers. The first time he got a chance to sing, because of the way he had embodied his characterization, his golden voice took me by surprise. I found myself looking forward to each time he would have a moment to sing. Clarke as the picked on at home Leaf was so endearing that when he misspelled a word someone in the audience shouted out “no!”. I feel like that is high praise indeed, to connect well enough that the people you are performing for are genuinely invested in your success. The same energy was in the room when Rahimi as Park sings her signature song, “I speak Six Languages,” and makes a pivotal decision for herself for the first time.
The building of the relationship between Olive, played by Sibley Snowden, and Barfee, played by Aaron Linford Allred, was perhaps the most precious part of the production. What makes this show work is that it understands the difficulty of having an awkward personality, yet still wanting and needing human connection. When Snowden and Allred discover they both play the same games with words and build upon that connection throughout the show, it takes a sweet and quaint show to another level, providing a level of connection and compassion that is palpable as an audience member.
Each time I have seen this production in Utah, it has been the version that has been edited for family audiences. Good Company has produced the original Broadway production script, which includes an amusing act two opener sung to perfection by Justin Ravago as Chip Tolentino. It does make the show more of a PG-13 than audiences may be ready for.
Spelling Bee was a fun and cheerful way to celebrate the beginning of Good Company’s 10th season. I am excited to see what they bring next.