Sunday, July 18, 2010

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - Contemporary Classics and RK Productions

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Contemporary Classics and RK Productions
(at the Ballard Underground Theatre)
July 14 – August 14, 2010
Tickets and Information

The popular Tony award-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a quirky, off-beat story of six spellers competing for the chance to move on to Nationals, in a small county spelling bee run by a former champion. While the story is simple, the show is not: the book and score (William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin) are complex and lively, revolving around wordplay the entire time; the misfit characters are all hilarious and affecting—and the show itself changes each night with the input of (willing) extra spellers pulled from the audience to join in the fight for the championship, which is sometimes the best fodder for the comic improv that the show is peppered with.

The show is based on ensemble work, with no featured leads, each character and voice adding to the whole, and as such demands a good deal from any group of actors. Never fear, though: this production has assembled an excellent cast. Each character is crisply and touchingly drawn, and every actor onstage shines during their solo turns while blending beautifully during the many ensemble numbers. This includes several actors who step out of their kid-characters to play parents during flashbacks and other small moments, each time making the transition clearly and without fuss. With such a tight and talented group of actors it is hard to pick standouts—though Olive Ostrovsky (Ashley FitzSimmons)’s heartbreaking ballad yearning for her parents’ love is particularly memorable.

Olive Ostrovsky (Ashley FitzSimmons) and William Barfee (Robert Scherzer).
Photo credit: Danielle Barnum/

Stage direction (Kate Jaeger, who also plays Rona) and music direction (Kimberly Dare) are incredibly precise in both quiet and comic moments, and the choreography manages to showcase the spellers’ child characters while never becoming cheesy or condescending; all aspects of the performance—the singing, speech, acting, movement and the tiny but first-rate band—work together with no trouble and quite a bit of polish.

Colin Connors’ scenic design transplants the corner of a school gym into the small underground space, complete with gleaming gym floors, championship pennants and a working climbing rope. Kathryn Dawson’s heightened costume design (along with Michael Ledezma’s hair styling) accentuates each misfit student and offbeat adult, helping the actors to portray fully realized and often bizarre characters. Robert Aguilar makes full use of the color palette, crisp transitions, and judicious spotlights to make the stage feel larger than it really is, and to take us along on each character’s internal journey.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a solid show in itself, and one enjoyed by theatergoers across the country. Seattle’s premiere is an admirable, heartfelt and polished production of this show, and one entirely worth seeing if you enjoy musicals, wordplay or simply a well-told story.

Review by Kenna Kettrick

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