note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston kicked off its new season on September 3 with the musical comedy, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” that includes audience interaction, quirky characters, and slapstick fun. I’d already seen this one-act, 1-3/4-hour musical comedy twice- with the national touring company at the Wilbur Theatre, followed by a punchy, fast-paced version at North Shore Music Theatre in 2008, before the theater-in-the-round closed due to financial woes and has reopened under new ownership.
The Tony Award-winning musical is written by composer-lyricist William Finn, (who originally hails from Pittsfield), with book by Rachel Sheinkin, and conceived by Rebecca Feldman. It shines the spotlight on those painful middle school years, when kids are gawky and in-between, featuring a motley group of six nerdy overachievers who vie for the championship of their annual county spelling bee.
The play is continuously updated and highly interactive, calling out four contestants from the audience to meld in with the middle school spellers. Like the contestants, the enlisted spellers request dictionary definitions and that words to be used in sentences, regardless of their simplicity or their complexity. Cheered on by their friends in the audience, the non-cast spellers seem to enjoy their brief stint at stardom.
Like North Shore Music Theatre’s production in-the-round, the Lyric Theatre’s proscenium-staged version appears rushed, more frantic than the national touring company’s, and some of the actors are more lovable, irritating or less defined. For example, Lisa Yuen is outstanding as she reprises her Broadway role as Chinese overachiever Marcy Park, who is tightly wound for success in whatever she tries, because of her structured existence. Her lament and meltdown in her solo, “I Speak Six Languages,” is fantastic.
So, too, is Kerry Jill Garbis as both the overly-perky emcee, realtor, and former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Perretti. She doubles as introverted contestant Olive Ostrovsky’s world-traveling mom. Besides maintaining a big smile and effervescent personality, Garbis sings beautifully, especially during Olive’s stream-of-consciousness medley with her parents, “The I Love You Song,” performed with Krista Buccellato (Olive) and De’Lon Grant as Olive’s dad. Grant also shines as ex-convicted prisoner Mitch Mahoney (performing community service at the bee) and as one of contestant Logainne’s two gay dads.
However, Daniel Vito Siefring as know-it-all, pudgy William Barfee (he insists it’s pronounced Bar-fay), with his food allergies, a mucus membrane disorder, and quirky method of spelling out his words using his magic foot, is overly obnoxious. As contestants are weeded out, leaving William and Olive as the two finalists, their budding romance and William’s evolving transformation are lost here.
Also diminished is the role of Boy Scout contestant Chip Tolentino, portrayed by Sam Simahk, who doubles briefly as low-key, understated Jesus. Poor Chip suffers a physical malfunction that deters his power of concentration and is eliminated after spying home-schooled, cape-wearing competitor Leaf Coneybear’s well endowed sister, Marigold, in the audience. In retribution, after misspelling the word initially, Chip hawks and throws candy to the audience during his solo “Lament”.
Lexie Frare is hilarious yet touching as lispy social activist and president of her elementary school’s student Gay Alliance group, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, especially when her dad tries to sabotage the bee, and her conscience troubles her. And Michael Borges as self-conscious, home-schooled Leaf Coneybear, (who also portrays one of Logainne’s gay dads), has several bright moments, when he realizes he isn’t stupid- as his family tells him - and is enlightened, empowered, while spelling.
Rounding out the cast nicely is veteran actor Will McGarrahan portraying neurotic vice principal Douglas Panch.
While director-choreographer Stephen Terrell does a fine job overall of making the audience laugh and reminisce, designer Matthew Whiton’s set is minimalist. Whiton uses background screens bursting with brilliant green and fuschia hues at times, but are non-effective. However, Shawn E. Boyle’s lighting on each contestant, delineating their stream-of-consciousness and fantasies from their turn at microphone, is great.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has appealed to audiences since its inception, because it strikes a chord within us all.
BOX INFO: One-act, 1-3/4 hour musical comedy, written by William Finn, directed-choreographed by Stephen Terrell, appearing at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, through October 2. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; with matinees the first and fourth Wednesday at 2 p.m.; Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Post-show talk-back is September 19. Tickets are $29-$56, group sales, senior, student discounts. Call the Box Office at 617-585-5678 or visit www.lyricstage.com or the Box Office.