Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The musical is nothing more than a staged spelling bee in non-specific Putnam County (Wikipedia lists nine states with a county named Putnam, though lack of Southern drawls among the characters has me ruling out a few of those) with six young contestants–the youngest is eight-year-old Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, and last year's victor, Chip Tolentino, returning with the hope of repeating his triumph, is twelve. There are also three officiating adults: host Rona Lisa Peretti, a top local realtor whose greatest moment was winning this very same contest twenty-two years earlier; Mitch Mahoney, a convict on parole doing community service as "comfort counselor," who gives each eliminated speller a juice box and a hug as he escorts the loser off stage; and Douglas Panch, a middle school vice-principal undergoing rehabilitation of a different sort, and the word pronouncer.
How, you wonder, is a spelling bee made into a musical? Come and see! Each of the six scripted contestants has a unique personality, and together they form a group of wonderful characters. Four have a set of background circumstances tied to their families that brings additional humor and, moreover, poignancy, to the bee. While these backstories are rather exaggerated in the telling, they are built around kernels of truth that play well as they lampoon social trends circa 2004, when the show was created. While nearly twenty years later, creators Rebecca Feldman (concept), William Finn (music and lyrics), and Rachel Sheinkin (book) might have chosen different aspects of modern life to skewer were they writing the show today, the ones on tap in 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee still play with currency.
Leaf Coneybear is a rather clueless entrant, part of a family of home-schooled kids raised by aging flower children. Leaf placed third in his local spelling bee but was called in when the first and second place winners were unavailable. He wonders if he belongs on that stage in his solo spot, "I'm Not That Smart." Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre has been groomed for victory by her two dads, as explained by Logainne in "Woe Is Me." Marcy Park brings to the stage the trope of Asian-American students under excruciating pressure to excel in all things, as she tells us, "I Speak Six Languages."
Chip Tolentino appears to be a fairly "all American" boy–a little league player in a scout uniform–perhaps too "all American" for his own good ("My Unfortunate Erection"). William Barfee (pronounced "Barfay") has a dreadful lack of social skills, though his "Magic Foot" has taken him far among the super-spellers. Olive Ostrovsky, the sixth of the group, searches for her late-running father in the audience while her mother searches for spiritual truth at an Ashram in India. With her parents otherwise engaged, Olive wistfully finds comfort in "My Friend, the Dictionary."
You may wonder about my reference to six "scripted" spellers. That's because at each performance the six are joined by four volunteers from the audience. The show makes wonderful use of these unversed contestants, who indeed are asked to spell in public and face the prospect of being eliminated. The cast must be adept at subtly guiding them through the paces, and this crew is. At the performance I attended it became just one more terrific element in an altogether winning show.
Tyler Michaels King directs this production of Spelling Bee, and his experience in improv serves the show well. One suspects that Michaels King and his nine cast members had at least as much fun putting this together as the audience has viewing the results, judging by the frisky spirit on stage and the authentic interplay among the characters. Which is not to be mistaken for slipshod. The show is crisply paced, and scenes shift seamlessly, with nary a crack wide enough for one of the many whip-smart jokes to fall through. There is no ensemble aside from the characters already named, but Stephanie Anne Bertumen's witty choreography, making optimal use of a bleacher on which the spellers await their turns that cleverly splits in two, makes dance and movement an integral part of the show. Even the audience volunteers get to be part of the fun.
The production is very well cast. Brendan Nelson Finn makes William Barfee's mix of arrogance, rudeness, and physical fragility into a lovable mess, and he definitely knows how to shake a leg, er, a magic foot. Tom Reed's years of sketch comedy at Dudley Riggs prove valuable in portraying an unfiltered Leaf Coneybear. Emma Schuld conveys Marcy Park's tight grip on her impulses, and the joy with which she is finally able to break free. Gabrielle Dominique as Logainne never falters in carrying the burden of pleasing her two somewhat irritating dads, even if she is about to boil over inside. Wesley Mouri catches the essence of Chip's confidence as the reigning champ and his indignation when it seems like the cards are not being fairly dealt. Then we come to Jillian Sjoquist, who brings warmth, wit, vulnerability and a tremendous voice to her portrayal of Olive, the most moving of the show's characters. Her delivery of "The I Love You Song," imagining her absent mother and father behind her, is a showstopper that drew a well-deserved ovation. Sjoquist is a fairly new arrival on Twin Cities stages, and I look forward to seeing what comes next for her.
The three adults in the room are also splendidly played, with Wariboko Semenitari cagily opportunistic as the comfort counselor, Stephanie Cousins delightful as the realtor overly invested in the memories of her spelling bee heyday, and Tod Peterson lending a superbly droll delivery as the word pronouncer, making definitions of words into verbal bon-bons. The five-piece band, seen on stage behind the brightly welcoming spelling bee banner, plays with elan, led by conductor Raymond Berg.
Even before the show starts and its many pleasures pour forth, we are met by the wonderful set designed by Sarah Bahr. The entire show–save for a few flashback scenes–takes place in a middle school gym and Bahr's creation is spot on, with a dollop of wit, such as the motivational posters taped on to the walls, a vintage wooden desk and swivel chairs for the host and pronouncer, and colorful pennants hung in a vain effort to create a festive environment. Samantha Fromm Haddow's costumes capture the essence of each character's uniqueness, and Alice Endo's lighting effectively zeroes in on individual moments and goes wide for the large group numbers. Born Into Royalty designed the sound, which is crisp and clear for individual speakers and singers, though it becomes a bit muddy when there is choral singing, especially when performers are spread widely across the stage.
Just two weeks before seeing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee I had the pleasure of seeing another work by composer and lyricist William Finn, Theatre Latté Da's Falsettos, still running at the Ritz Theatre. Finn is a gifted musical theatre talent whose output so far has been sadly limited but is well worth experiencing. Compared to Falsetto's soaring emotional score, its strong narrative arc, and its fixed place in our social history, Spelling Bee is a joyful romp, very funny, very tuneful, but with just enough weight and heart to feel like you've gathered up some substance, while being immensely entertained. It depicts the trials of being an adolescent struggling to succeed on terms and rules set by adults (both spelling bee rules and the terms of being a child in a specific family), but never mistakes itself as a deep dive into that terrain.
While The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee–and Artistry's production of it–delivers top quality entertainment, its challenge to us is fairly simple, summed up by the answer to this question: What does f-u-n spell? Which brings me to that bonus word: score this one as "unmissable."
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through October 29, 2023, at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. For tickets and information, please call 952-563-8375 or visit artistrymn.org.
Conceived by: Rebecca Feldman; Music and Lyrics: William Finn; Book: Rachel Sheinkin; Additional Material: Jay Reiss; Director: Tyler Michaels King; Choreographer: Stephanie Anne Bertumen; Musical Direction: Raymond Berg; Scenic Design: Sarah Bahr; Costume, Hair and Makeup Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Alice ; Endo; Sound Design: Born Into Royalty; Production Manager and Props Design: Katie Phillips; Technical Director: Will Rafferty; Stage Manager: Lisa M. Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Charlene Holm
Cast: Stephanie Cousins (Rona Lisa Peretti), Gabrielle Dominique (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre), Grace Hillmyer (swing), Jordan Leggett (swing), Wesley Mouri (Chip Tolentino), Brendan Nelson Finn (William Barfee), Tod Peterson (Douglas Panch), Tom Reed (Leaf Coneybear), Emma Schuld (Marcy Park), Wariboko Semenitari (Mitch Mahoney), Jillian Sjoquist (Olive Ostrovsky).