The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Conceived By Rebecca Feldman
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Additional Material by Jay Reiss
Presented by David Stone, James L. Nederlander,
Barbara Whitman, Patrick Catullo,
Barrington Stage Company, Second Stage Theatre
Circle in the Square
50th Street, Btw. Broadway and 8th Ave.
Jay Reiss as Douglas Panch
Lisa Howard as Rona Lisa Peretti
Deborah S. Craig as Marcy Park
Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Leaf Coneybear
Dan Fogler as William Barfee
Celia Keenan-Bolger as Olive Ostrovsky
Jose Llana as Chip Tolentino
Derrick Baskin as Mitch Mahoney
Sarah Saltzberg as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre
Musicians: Vadim Feichtner, Conductor, Piano
Carmel Dean, Associate Conductor/Synthesizer
Rick Heckman, Reed
Amy Ralske, Cello
Glenn Rhian, Drums, Percussion
Michael Keller, Music Coordinator
Directed by James Lapine
Choreographed by Dan Knechtges
Set Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Jennifer Caprio
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
Vocal Arrangements: Carmel Dean
Press: The Publicity Office
Production Stage Manager: Andrea Testani
Production Manager: Kai Brothers
Casting: Tara Rubin Casting
General Management: 321 Theatrical Management
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
April 30, 2005, Matinee
Having lived on the border of Putnam County, and having worked in the field of education in the area, I know that Putnam County could be almost any American county, with almost any American middle school students and frustrated Asst. Principal (Excuse me, Vice Principal) and former spelling bee contestant, now spelling bee administrator. I also know that in any American town these days, middle school students arrive with a lifestyle and set of life experiences that are challenging, edgy, and untested.
In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee six endearing and self-effacing contestants vie for winner, NOT runner-up, and they sing, dance, perform gymnastics, twirl a baton, spell with one foot, lisp, whine, gaze, drool, and wish, wish for success in something, this metaphorical contest of life. There is a girl with two gay dads, a boy with a sinus condition, a boy, who is clothing challenged, a Boy Scout with uncontrollable hormones, a girl with a mother in India and a father in the Board Room, and a girl who strives to undo her perfection.
The stage set of middle school gymnasium, with basketball court, handmade school announcements, desk and chairs, continues out to Circle in the Square’s lobby, where more handmade signs, flyers, posters, campy as the lyrics of the play, create the gestalt of being a kid again. In fact, at this matinee performance, children were abundantly present in the audience, and adults were drawn onto the stage. All actors were obviously young adults, although they were believable in the role of kids. And, two adults from the audience were recruited into the stage action, spelling better than Jay Reiss (as Asst. Principal Douglas Panch) and Lisa Howard (as spelling bee administrator Rona Lisa Peretti) expected. One adult contestant had to be given an especially difficult word to remove her, prior to the next big number. William Finn’s numbers, however, were not terribly melodic or memorable, but Rachel Sheinkin’s lyrics (apparently augmented by William Finn and Jay Reiss) were over the top funny.
Derrick Baskin as Mitch Mahoney, Comfort Counselor (juice and a hug for each of the losers) and a few other characters, knew when to swagger with big hair and when to strong suit with short hair. Jay Reiss as Douglas Panch showed remarkable pathos, when he found a new prize of cash for a student in need and when he let it hang out in a loose cannon tantrum. Lisa Howard as the warm, but prissy, administrator, had the matronly manner required. James Lapine directed this series of choreographed tunes, campy one-liners, childish romances, contemporary dramas, and exotic, dreamy surprises with splendid timing and seasoned casualness.
The visible band and large auditorium seating of Circle in the Square made me think for a moment that I was back in a school in Putnam County. In fact the adults as kids, with baggy shorts, Boy Scout uniform, tight braids, pastel frocks, homemade clothes, and plaid, pleated skirt, were believable kids from the first moments they were introduced, as they spelled each word and listened to it in context (the funniest au courant sentences that the English language could devise).
I missed this show in the smaller venue, but The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has the power to draw you in, whether you’re pulled onto the stage or seated in the wings. You might even catch some candy thrown by the hormonally challenged Boy Scout or check the posters outside to see what else is happening with this endearing, adorable bunch. You’ll find a little of yourself in many of the kids and a little of them in you. You might not leave the theatre humming, but you’ll leave the theatre smiling. And, that’s not a bad thing at all.
Pictured: (front row): Celia Keenan-Bolger, Dan Fogler, Sarah Saltzberg; (back row): Jose Llana, Deborah S. Craig, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the young spellers of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus