The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
I once contacted all the girls who had ever played Clara in Boulder Ballet's Nutcracker for an article. Several were now college students, one at Princeton; one of them was dancing in Canada. In every ballet company -- professional, amateur or somewhere in between -- the role of Clara is a touchstone. Young dancers dream of it and compete for it fiercely; ballet moms worry and scheme. I was expecting a bit of nostalgia, some Nutcracker bashing, maybe a rueful comment or two about how insignificant their childish triumphs seemed in retrospect. Instead, each of these young women said that playing Clara had been one of the most important things that had ever happened to her -- terrifying and wonderful, an event that had forever changed her sense of who she was and what she might be capable of. And I realized that triumph or failure in these odd, hermetic little worlds of adolescence -- karate, debate team, high school sports, ballet -- goes very, very deep.
Rachel Sheinkin, who wrote the book for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and songwriter William Finn clearly remember this. At the same time, they have a full adult awareness of just how absurd and overblown all of these immature passions can be. Their six little spelling champs are kids we've seen before -- lonely outsiders and bratty overachievers, adolescents whose parents neglect them or push them too hard to succeed. The characters come close to stereotype without ever quite falling into it. As a result, we can laugh at them and empathize simultaneously. There's little Marcy Park, played to smug perfection by Katie Boren, who succeeds at everything she does and whose response when she finally finds the freedom to fail is an absolute delight. There's disheveled William Barfee, who wants to be handsome, given the perfect frenetic and elastic physicality by Eric Petersen. Lauren Worsham is touching as sweet Olive (a name that becomes "I love" if you reverse the first two vowels, she points out), and she has a killer voice. Michael Zahler couldn't be more dopily perfect as Leaf Coneybear, the hippie kid from Boulder, whose correct answers seem to visit him from outer space. Miguel Cervantes's Chip Tolentino has an inspired number involving a box of snacks and an erection -- not to mention an impressive throwing arm. My only problem with Sarah Stiles's energetic and heartfelt performance as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre is that between the lisp she affects for the role and the usual muddiness of the Buell sound system, I had trouble understanding her words. It's hard for adults to portray children without being too broad or too cute, but all of these actors succeed. And they're backed by strong performances from Alan H. Green as the professional comforter, James Kall as hapless Vice Principal Panch and Jennifer Simard -- another gorgeous voice -- playing moderator and one-time winner Rona Lisa Pretty.
The writers manage to work in a couple of local references without being thuddingly obvious or seeming to try too hard (perhaps you caught my mention of Boulder in the last paragraph). Equally witty is the way they use members of the audience: I've never seen audience participation woven into a show as cleverly as this. On opening night, all the volunteers were remarkably poised, and one of them provided the evening's best moment by spelling a pretty much unspellable word, causing the audience to howl and an almost-visible frisson of surprise and hilarity to pass through the cast.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through January 28, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
This witty, quirky, unexpected little show would doubtless work even better in a smaller venue than the Buell, and it wouldn't hurt to shorten the text and some of the numbers -- there was one about Olive's parents that went on forever. But I must say I had a delightful time with it.
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