The show: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford.
What makes it special?: A musical production for the feisty theater company.
First impressions: Can a show be called adorable without evoking images of fluffy kittens and cooing babies? Well, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a show that makes you beam and smile, that is when you're not laughing outright at one of the funniest books of a musical ever (by Rachel Sheinkin, who won a Tony for it) or admiring the tuneful, loopy and clever score by William Finn. The Playhouse on Park production is a non-stop delight, even before the show proper begins. It's expertly staged, wonderfully performed (the band, too) and full of laughter, heart and life.
What's it about?: Six young spellers compete (along with three volunteers from the audience) in a bee, overseen by a loving guidance counselor and former spelling bee champ (Emily Kron) who gives daft color commentary; a vice principal "with a past" (Joel Newsome); and an imposing-yet-tender event "enforcer" (Norman Payne).
But it's more than that a parody of a spelling bee. It's about getting through pre-adolescence with minimal damage. These vulnerable outsiders include Chip (Scott Scaffidi), a golden boy discovering the special challenges of puberty ("My stiffy has ruined my spelling," he sadly sings); and Logainne Schwarzand Grubeniere (Hillary Ekwall), trying to live up to her two daddies's high expectations; and Leaf Coneybear (Kevin Barlowski) the fanciful eccentric who is dismissed by friends and family.
Then there's William Barfee (Steven Mooney), the pudgy, peanut-intolerant kid with a rare mucus-membrane disorder ("My whole life I was only breathing through one nostril"); Marcy Park (Maya Naff) the Asian youngster who doesn't want to be seen as simply exceptional; and Olive Ostrovsky (Natalie Sannes) the lonely only child whose mother is finding herself in India and whose dad isn't around. But what they all have is a passionate love of spelling and the dictionary as their best friend.
So the show is just a spelling bee?: Well, in the same way "A Chorus Line" is "just" an audition. There are many similarities between the two.The storyline arc is who is going to be the winner, but along the way you get to know each character as individuals and see their relationships to each other as they discover new things about themselves and each other.
And the production: Simply terrific. Director-choreographer Susan Haefner has staged the show with energy, sensitivity and imagination. Dan Nischan's set is perfect for the raw Playhouse space. And the five-piece band led by Robert James Tomasulo navigates the wild rhythm changes of Finn's vibrant, vernacular-rich score expertly.
The ensemble of actors playing smart, self-aware, and socially inexperienced pre-teens is first rate, but I especially liked Barlowski's funny flakiness, Mooney's sardonic Barfee and Naffs self-possessed Marcy. Newsome was deadpan-dry reading the hysterical word definitions. The audience volunteers also got into the spirit of the show, and took defeat gracefully, along with their consolation prize of apple juice. But it was Kron's heartfelt performance as the Queen Bee with a stellar singing voice that not only gave the show its adult perspective but its knowing heart.
Who will like it?: Anyone who can remember being a geeky, insecure, self-doubting kid with a passion for something special. In other words, just about everyone, right?
Who won't?: The folks at Spellcheck.
For the kids?: Junior and high schoolers will love it. But you might have to have a private discussion with younger ones about the erection song.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: You won't get an "albabetter" show than this.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: I remember seeing the world premiere of this show at Barrington Stage in the Massachusetts Berkshires in 2004. Though it was in a junior high school auditorium with few production values, I knew immediately that this was joyous show destined to be shared with audiences for many years to come. I wrote: "Finn turns to a special kind of American ritualistic self-abuse known as the spelling bee and creates one of the funniest, sweetest and quirkiest small-scale musicals to come along in a long time. It's destined to have a life on many professional and amateur stages alike."
Damn, I love it when I'm right,
The basics: The show plays through July 27 on 244 Park St., in West Hartford. Information: www.playhouseonpark.org.
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