The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - Jan. 2011
Reviewed by John Kenrick

Composer-lyricist William Finn and librettist Rachel Sheinkin took Broadway by surprise with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a musical that introduces audience to the disarming young misfits competing in a typical suburban middle school spelling competition. In the relative intimacy of the three-sided Circle in the Square Theatre, this unlikely show was so unexpectedly charming that it ran for just under three years.

You might think an intimate, family-friendly, one set musical about school-age children would become a staple among amateur groups, but Spelling Bee is not an easy show to do. With anything less than perfect casting, likeable misfits can come across as unpleasantly weird -- and this show has the added burden of stuffing most of its best comic moments into the first act, leaving its heavier moments for the second act. Handled with less than a masterful hand, Spelling Bee can all too easily slip from an early abundance of laughter to a disconcertingly slow and downbeat conclusion.

Unfortunately, the current revival of Spelling Bee at Paper Mill Playhouse (produced in association with Philadelphia Theatre Company), although certainly a professional effort, falls prey to this show's ungainly construction. Part of this is due to poor pacing and unclear direction, and part is due to less than optimal casting in several key roles.

Some of the cast has all the talent and quirky charm one could ask for. Marla Mindelle has great fun playing Rona Lisa Piretti, a past winner of the local spelling bee who returns to emcee it every year. Wheelchair-bound actress Ali Stroker is excellent as Olive, a lonely girl whose only real friend is her dictionary. Stoker's powerhouse singing makes one hope that more casting directors will find opportunities for her. The real standout in this cast is Lyle Colby Mackston as Leaf Coneybear, a gangly teen who's derisive family has long since convinced him he is not smart -- but who proves a masterful -- if unorthodox -- speller. Mackston's is so irresistible in this role that I will be surprised if we do not see him succeeding on Broadway or in other media in the very near future.

But the rest of the company, while capable, is not particularly remarkable, and in a musical where nine actors share almost equal amounts of stage time, it is not enough for one third of the ensemble to be up to par. Director Marc Bruni seems all too willing to settle for performances that are "good enough," rather than push some of his cast to any real accomplishment. He also allowed the plot-heavy second act to drag, and that made an initially fun evening turn into a downer. Wendy Seyb's flat choreography only adds to the sense of disappointment.

The gifted Anna Louizos has created a fine school gymnasium setting, Alejo Vietti's costumes do more to define the characters than some of the performances, and David Lander's lighting is a major asset. But I find it disconcerting when a production credits no less than two sound designers and yet in song after song, the lyrics become totally unintelligible. This is especially annoying when there are no more than five pieces in the orchestra.

Although by no means terrible, this production of Spelling Bee is inconsistent, and that inconsistency makes it impossible for this offbeat musical comedy to work its full magic.

This production ran through Feb. 13, 2011

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