The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by Theatre Latte Da performing at the Ordway

October 9, 2011
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Mary Fox, Cat Brindisi, Joseph R. Pyfferoen, Alan Bach, Derek Prestly and Sheena Janson in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Looking for some undemanding entertainment?  Something that provides talented actor/singers with a vehicle for goofy characterization, plus a slew of  tuneful songs?  Minus the distraction of a real story?  Of course you are!

Theater Latté Da has the show for you: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Latté Da performing on the Ordway’s McKnight Stage, through Oct 30).

Composer/lyricist William Finn (owner of the extensive Falsettos franchise) and book-writer Rachel Sheinkin seize on a simple but as it turns out quite rich comic device: a spelling bee.  A half dozen gifted but highly dorky spellers (plus some taken-from-the-audience foils), stand in front of a large appreciative audience (us) have at words like “crepuscule”, “lysergicaciddithalimide” and “cow”.  As the contest proceeds, through songs and scenes, we learn a bit about their home lives, and what’s driving them.  The heightened performance atmosphere gives the show a nice A Chorus Line-like zip.

Mistakes are made, naturally, so slowly but surely the contestants get winnowed out until the only two remaining are…  Well, I’m not going to reveal what little real story the show has.  See it.

What follows now is the Grumpy Theatre Critic paragraph.  Feel free to take it with a large grain of salt, disagree, or skip it altogether.  Finn and Sheinkin fail to explore these characters in a truly satisfying way.  Too often they fall back on camp and shallow comic effect.  As a result we don’t care enough about the triumphs of the characters and we don’t really invest in the contest.  The play certainly amuses – indeed, it’ll have you laughing constantly – but in the end it doesn’t  compel.  End of Grumpy Critic paragraph.

The actors delight.  The danger with a show like this is that the performances can become campy and ungrounded, ends in themselves, and it is greatly to the credit of directors Peter Rothstein and Michael Matthew Ferrell (the show, oddly, credits two) that they are able to rein the cast in and keep the show focused and crisply paced.

I was especially taken with Cat Brindisi as Olive (excellent name).  Brindisi plays her shy and frumpy character with luminous presence and rich understated passion.  Terrific.  Also wonderful is Joseph R. Pyfferoen as William Barfée who, famously, spells with his bare foot.  Pyfferoen combines defensiveness and vulnerability in a way that makes him very appealing.  Tod Petersen as vice principal Panch (“I’d like to apologize for last year’s unfortunate incident”) sports a perfect flattop haircut and a twisted smile.  As our sweet but brittle hostess Kim Kevens does some terrific comic turns.  Brian Frutiger excels as Mitch Mahoney, an ex-con doing, hilariously, his community service.  I could go on, but this is the Internet.  Everyone is good – excellent singers as well.

Recommended.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

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