‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ at American University by Don Michael Mendoza

Since the regional rights were released in 2010, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – conceived by Rebecca Feldman, music and lyrics by William Finn, and a Tony Award-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin – became the new “show-du-jour” across the country. It is a story of six awkward, young spellers all vying for the title of Putnam County spelling bee champion and American University’s Department of Performing Arts’ production, directed and choreographed by Karl Kippola, was very impressive and extremely e-n-t-e-r-t-a-i-n-i-n-g!

I’ve seen multiple versions of this musical in the past year, but this university musical excelled past most of the professional level productions I’ve attended and enjoyed.

The cast of 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.' Photo by Catherine Gannon.

I looked at the set from my seat before the musical began and I observed the accurate imitation of an elementary school gymnasium, though I immediately noticed the exposed orchestra on stage right intelligently worked into the stage picture as a color coordinated school band. To be frank, a school gymnasium can only be so exciting, but Scenic Designe Samina Vieth, and Lighting Designer Jason Arnold, created a world that was both simple and elaborate that fulfilled all the requirements for the evening’s spelling bee.

From a musical standpoint, the sound created through John-Michael D’Haviland’s musical direction was well-executed between the orchestra and the cast, which was full of talented singers. The best part, however, was watching a show that contained actors that could not only sing, but act through their songs to convey their character’s message.

Kippola’s guidance definitely shined through in the opening scene where it was apparent that the cast took the time to create noticeable and different quirks for their characters beyond what was called for in the script. The actors are also required to play multiple characters and a great example was during “The I Love You Song” where characters Rona Lisa Perretti (Erin Hannigan) and Mitch Mahoney (Anthony O’Tapi) both transformed themselves from spelling bee judge and comfort counselor to Olive Ostraovsky’s (Jennifer Christine Haining’s) parents. This song also stood out in my mind because the three actors not only performed well, but also sounded wonderful.

Spelling Bee is an ensemble piece and it is not successful without great chemistry among the cast, and this production definitely had it. Within the ensemble, my favorite performances came from spellers Leaf Coneybear (Logan Sutherland), Logainne Schwartzandgrubinniere (Amy Wilson), and especially William Barfee (Eddie Leavy).

The cast of 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.' Photo by Catherine Gannon.

Sutherland, a junior musical theatre major, who also played multiple characters, played a dumbfounded but unknowingly intelligent child very well and had a handle on improvisation as he lived in his character’s world from beginning to end. Wilson, another junior, who aside from having a great voice, nicely portrayed a girl pressured by two overbearing dads – complete with a nervous twitch – and had a wonderful moment when she was eliminated from the competition.

However, Leavy – a senior public communication major who proved that you don’t have to be a theatre major to rock the stage – was extremely entertaining and funny and committed to his character, which was apparent as he badgered the other contestants in any scene where the characters lined up to spell. He also made William Barfee endearing, even though the character immediately came across as an arrogant and irritable.

Finally, what makes each production Spelling Bee unique are the guest spellers that are chosen from the audience to participate in the first third of the show. AU chose three very special featured guests and brought to the stage university President, Cornelius Kerwin, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Peter Starr, and Vice-President of Campus Life Gail Hanson. From the audience perspective, it was not surprising that a show at a university would leap at the chance to involve the institution’s administration – but as an alumnus of the school, it made the evening that much more enjoyable.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through March 31, 2012 at The Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre – 4200 Wisconsin Ave, NW, in Washington, DC.  For tickets call (202) 885-ARTS, or order them online.


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