SPELLERS’ WORLD ENCHANTS
> WORD NERDS COME TO LIFE VIVIDLY IN ‘PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE’
/ Special to The Commercial Appeal
IN THE PAST 10 years or so, there has been a handful of Broadway musicals that seem perfectly conceived for the regional theater stage, such as “Avenue Q,” the musical with hand puppets, or “The Drowsy Chaperone,” set in the small apartment of a musical theater aficionado.
One might even go a few notches down from regional theater with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which opened the season at Playhouse on the Square last weekend.
The ideal venue for this hilarious, character-driven musical is probably a community center. Even better: the legendary combo cafeteria/auditorium of childhood memory, also known as the cafetorium.
The reason the show works so well the further it gets from the formality of a “theater” is that it already brims with informal, childlike enthusiasm. The less the performers seem like actors and the more they come across as real kids in a spelling contest, the more the audience gets into it. They’re rooting for their favorite kid. They’re spelling along with the contestants.
We want to forget that we’re in a theater and instead feel that we’re at the
ultimate sporting event for word nerds.
The Broadway tour that came to the Orpheum a while back certainly did justice to the script by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin. But the more exciting show is the homegrown Playhouse production.
Director Dave Landis once again infuses his staging with spirit and vitality. He lets the actors exist in their own worlds, just as, if you’ve ever watched a spelling bee on television, the contestants are definitely lost in theirs.
“Spelling Bee” is about five youngsters who have a gift. They are the best spellers in their schools, and only one of them can make it to the national competition. A few volunteers from the audience are also invited to join the spellers during the first half of the show.
It’s hard to imagine any actor turning down a chance to play one of the wonderfully vivid characters in the show, but the key to getting it right — as does this cast — is also making the characters appear awkward and, in a way, pathetic.
Stephen Andrew Parker plays the Boy Scout whose unfortunate encounter with adolescence is a serious distraction to his spelling. Laura Stracko is excellent as the pig-tailed daughter of two gay men driving her to perfection. Lili Thomas has a shining moment as the stereotypical overachiever, speaker of six languages, who comes to realize that winning doesn’t matter.
David Ryan is the “not that smart” kid who wears a cape and makes his own clothes. Nicole Renee Hale plays the sweet girl from a broken home who just wants her parents to love her. Finally, there is the inimitable Pete Montgomery as the slovenly, irascible dweeb who spells words with his “magic foot.”
Jenny Odle Madden and Michael Gravois give excellent turns as the organizers of the bee, and Thomas King plays a tough guy serving out his parole as counselor to the losers.
“Spelling Bee” uproariously gets into the heads of nearly all the characters onstage. By the end you not only love them, but you also want to give each of them a big hug and say “congratulations.”
David Ryan, Laura Stracko and Thomas “TeKay” King are part of the vivid cast of characters in Playhouse’s “Putnam County Spelling Bee.’’
Stephen Andrew Parker portrays a Boy Scout whose spelling is impaired by his encounter with adolescence.