Here’s a show that evokes the insecurities, the social ineptitude and the general terror of middle school – and transforms it into about two hours of nonstop fun.
The title of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” tells you all you need to know about the plot and the concept. Get ready to watch two hours of spelling bee – but heightened with lots of laughs, and even some drama and tension.
The set is a middle school gymnasium. At the beginning of the show, we are introduced to the six main contestants (plus four audience members who, in the first act, pretend to be contestants). All six are given some hilarious dialogue and at least one big song to define their characters.
And then we get to find out who wins. See if you can guess correctly at intermission.
It all works because of a truly hilarious book by Rachel Sheinkin (she won a Tony for it) and some catchy and rousing songs by the excellent William Finn (“Falsettos”).
It also works because the show is performed to the high professional standards we have come to expect from the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre. Director Roger Welch gives us a cast of six lovable adolescent spelling nerds (played by young adults) plus the two equally funny grown-ups who run the bee.
Don’t expect subtle character studies. The show has roots in improv comedy, and each character represents a broad comic type: the anti-social nerd, the brain, the space cadet, the eager overachiever, the loner and the junior liberal.
Yet this show excels in showing us the truth in one of the show’s song lyrics, sung by the spellers: “People think that we are automatons / But that’s exactly what we’re not.”
Kara Jones plays the teensy blond junior liberal, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, with such youthful verve, we’re convinced she really is 12. She is introduced with a typically funny and character-defining line: “She was the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at her elementary school.” Logainne, we soon discover, has two dads, each one pushier than the other.
Another well-defined character is William Barfee, played by Andrew Hartley with overtones of Bill Murray as the nerdy Todd from “Saturday Night Live.” Hartley plays Barfee as a nerd/bully hybrid, pushing the other kids around and proclaiming his own superiority. Barfee has a spelling gimmick, in which he relies on his “magic foot” to spell out the words on the floor before he delivers the word.
Leaf Coneybear, played with goofy charm by Matthew Wade, also has a gimmick: He locks into a trance before he spells the word.
This is an ensemble show, with all six spellers getting equal time in the spotlight, and if there’s one thing that has distinguished the CdA Summer Theatre over the years, it’s strong casting across the board. The other spellers are played with equal comic and vocal panache by Jay Paranada, Mallory Cooney King and Yvonne Same.
Just as important are the two grown-ups who run the bee, Rona Lisa Peretti, played by the exceptionally talented Laura Sable, and Vice Principal Douglas Panch, played by master of deadpan comedy Reed McColm.
Sheinkin actually gives them many of the best lines, often in reply to the contestants’ requests to “please use the word in a sentence.” Wait until you hear the Last Supper sentence. Oy.
Finally, J. Reese is terrific as one of the show’s inspired characters: The Comfort Counselor, who gives each kid a hug when he or she is knocked out of the competition. He’s a felon named Mitch who is doing his community service.
By the way, this show is about middle-schoolers, which means it deals with awkward issues such as puberty. One of Paranada’s songs is titled, “My Unfortunate Erection.” Parents, consider yourself alerted if you are thinking of bringing your – well, middle-schoolers, who may find that hilarious.
Judging from the size of the modest opening night audience, not everyone is familiar with this 2005 Broadway hit. Once word gets out, plenty of people will want to get in on the fun – and also find out how words like “crepuscule” are spelled.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter