Sunday, June 13, 2010

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Porthouse’s SPELLING BEE is “f-u-n”

At the start of opening night of Porthouse Theatre’s ‘THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE,’ four members of the audience were called onto the stage. As the production proceeded, they were asked to spell words such as “astrobleme,” “Hasenpfeffer,” “origami, “Weltanschauung” and “Cenacle.” For the privilege of being a spelling bee failure, these people were singled out because of their relationship to Porthouse personnel (for example, Charles Kent, director Terri Kent’s father) or gave a $100 donation. Upcoming spellers include arts patron Roe Green and “kid reviewer” Alex Berko.

SPELLING BEE, which is based on ‘C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,’ an original improvisational play created by Rebecca Feldman, is one of those fun musicals, with some underlying messages, including tolerance, teen angst, and parenting styles. But, most of all, it’s just plain out and out joy.

The show has music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin. It centers around a fictional spelling bee set in the Putnam Valley Middle School gym. Six quirky adolescents and three adults, who are as much children as the contestants, compose the cast.

The musical treats the audience as if they were at the bee. Cast members single out attendees and, in some cases, talk directly to the assemblage, sometimes with hysterical results. For example, last year’s “winner,” Chip Tolentino (Eric Tsuchiyama), who is in the throes of testosterone-gone-wild, is distracted by an attractive female audience member, resulting in a physical reaction and a misspelling. (Yes, though older kids will like this show, be aware that there are a few sexual overtones. My 14, 13 and 10 year old grandsons saw the recent Beck Center production, and loved it.)

Originally conceived as a one-act, 90 minute production, the Porthouse version has a break in the middle. Having seen the show in a single sitting in New York, I think the local production’s format works better.

Do any of the non-actors turned spellers do well? Usually they make it through one or two rounds, but when Katharine Close, the 2006 winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, was invited to be a guest speller, she survived 14 rounds.

The Porthouse production, under the direction of Terri Kent, is fun. Some of the characterizations could have been broader, but that should come as the cast starts reacting to and playing more with the audience and each other.

Highlight performers included Danny Lindeberger, as the eccentric Leaf Coneybear. His rendition of “I’m Not That Smart,” was tender and delightful. Maren Ritter as Olive, whose mother is on a world quest to “find herself” has a fine voice and her “The I Love You Song,” was well done. Though he still could make the character broader, Dane Castle gives a nice shine to the “foot speller,” William Barfee. “Magic Foot” is a show highlight. Sandra Emerick, as the former spelling bee winner and “mother superior” of the contest, sings well and developed a believable characterization. Marc Moiritz (Vice Principal Panch), Rumi Oyama (Marcy), Casie Rea (Logainne), and Jason Samuel (Mitch) all do their part to add to the fun.

Happily, Eric van Baars’ choreography is pleasant and Jonathan Swoboda keeps his musicians under control so that the singers’ words can be heard.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: If you want to smile and have a good time, and see some talented young people sing and dance, pack a picnic basket, go early, sit at one of the many tables with multi-colored umbrellas on the theatre’s lawn, and see Porthouse’s ‘THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE.’ It is a pleasant evening of summertime theatre.