The comedy improv roots of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” are in glorious evidence in the Spokane Civic Theatre’s hysterical production in the cozy Firth Chew Studio Theatre.
In this small black-box space, we almost feel like we are in an improv club. In fact, some of the best moments in this start-to-finish laugh fest are improvised with four audience volunteers. Greg Pschirrer, as the neurotic vice principal and spelling bee commissar, got laughs just by fixing these volunteers with a meaningful stare and saying things like, “Are you sure you don’t want to hear that word in a sentence?”
Even the scripted parts have the feel of improv comedy. All of the show’s middle-school characters come equipped with the kind of broad comedic gimmicks – the Eagle Scout Chip Tolentino with puberty issues, the tie-dyed Leaf Coneybear with space-cadet issues – of the sort that make an improv skit take instant life.
In fact, Rachel Sheinkin’s book feels like a delicious compilation of the best ad-libs from performances past. There was, for instance, my favorite line, when Pschirrer is asked to define the word “phylactery” (small leather boxes traditionally worn by Jewish men) and then to use it in a sentence:
“Billy, put down that phylactery, we’re Episcopalian.”
But this Tony-winning show has another element that makes it even more fun: the exuberant and catchy songs of William Finn, accompanied with panache by a small combo directed by Nancy Vancil.
In this production, we’re lucky to be in the hands of a director, Kathie Doyle-Lipe, who knows how to make the most out of a comic production number. In numbers such as the aptly named “Pandemonium,” she has her actors engaging in the kind of gymnastic-quality shtick that she herself is famous for. Even better, she has them all selling their songs with broad, happy, arms-outflung showbiz panache.
Doyle-Lipe, in her director’s notes, says that she found the “perfect cast” for this show. That’s a bit of hyperbole, of course, but in this case, it’s not far off base. The two “adults” – Pschirrer and Maureen Kumakura as Rona, former spelling bee champ – would be hard to top. Pschirrer is adept at delicious deadpan ad-libs, and Kumakura has a great voice and a perky real-estate-agent persona.
Yet the “kids” are the core of the show. I use the term “kids,” even though they are all played by adults, because director Doyle-Lipe has done an exceptionally good job of bringing out their inner adolescents. There were long stretches – maybe even the entire second act – when I forgot they weren’t middle-schoolers.
The entire ensemble is strong: David A. McElroy II, Molly Ovens, Mark Pleasant, Lance Babbitt, Beth Carey and Lacey Bohnet. In the first act, we meet all of the spellers, via song, and learn their quirks. In the second act, they each undergo a kind of transformation, of the I-finally-realized-I-don’t- have-to-be-perfect variety. It’s actually quite astute about the boiling caldron of adolescent emotions.
All six were funny and effective, but two actors were particularly touching in their transformation scenes. Bohnet, as the downcast but adorable Olive Ostrovsky, nearly brought me to tears in her song in which the spelling word “chimerical” is used as a metaphor to describe her particular fantasy: that her absentee parents are devoted to her.
And Babbitt fulfills all of the comedy potential of the big, brainy, nerdy and hopelessly arrogant William Barfee. His prep school shirt is half-untucked, his glasses are askew and his social skills are nonexistent. But, yes, Babbitt shows us the guy’s a teddy bear.
And I can’t forget one other actor, Michael Hynes as the thuggish Mitch, the “comfort counselor” who consoles each losing contestant.
If you want to know why his line, “But that would violate my parole,” is the second-funniest line of the night, well, you’ll just have to buy a ticket.