TheatreZone started its season strong with a fine production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” I was interested to see this hit show, having only heard some of the music before. Music and lyrics are by William Finn of “Falsettos” fame. Expectations were high.
There are no surprises as to the focus of the show’s action. The title tells it all. On the face of things, a spelling bee would not seem fertile ground for an evening’s musical entertainment, but if you have ever seen the film “Wordplay” about the annual crossword tournament, or watched the national spelling bee on television, you have to admit that this geeky variety of competition can generate its own kind of excitement.
The show is a very good showcase for what TheatreZone does best. It is a lively, funny, small-cast show. The setting of a high school gymnasium is believable at the G&L Theatre. The characters are not exactly Chekhovian in depth, but they are clear cut. The direction is crisp and solid.
The performances are all very strong. Ladd Boris, who has performed well at TheatreZone before, does his best work here, as he is transformed into the gravel-voiced William Barfee, who uses his “magic foot” to assist in spelling. Neapolitan Laura Needles is Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, child of two gay, and ruthlessly competitive, dads, and she is delightful. Olli Haaskivi (are the real names or the character names here more difficult to spell? Is this some kind of inside joke?) is very funny not only as one of Logainne’s dads, but principally as Leaf Coneybear, whose answering technique involves becoming momentarily possessed by a kind of alphabetic demon.
Karen Molnar has choreographed and also appears as emcee and former spelling champion Rona Lisa Peretti. Her play-by-play commentary on the contestants is a successful running gag.
The performers play a good trick on the audience by seemingly selecting audience members to participate, who turn out to be (no spoiler here since the run is over) plants, though very convincing ones. It’s a nice gimmick.
The play has some very funny moments, although these alternate with patches of inexplicable dullness. The music is not memorable, but it works.
Having now seen this play, and with all credit to Mark Danni and TheatreZone for a wonderful performance, I cannot help but wonder: is this what passes for a New York hit these days? The play does not say anything. The characters are cute, but are really variations on the predictable nerd theme.
The action does not have much of an arc, and after all, the audience knows from the beginning that it is all going to end with someone winning the bee, and the winner is fairly predictable. Even the small cast may be less an artistic choice than a bow to the economics of professional theater production. It all seems rather trivial.
But enough Scrooginess, it is unbecoming to the season. All blessings of the season to TheatreZone and thanks for its gifts to our community.