By Karen Isaacs
When I first saw The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in the Berkshires in 2004, I found the show charming but couldn’t see it going to Broadway. Well, it did and it was a hit; it received multiple Tony award nominations for 2005 and won two: best book of a musical and outstanding featured actor, Dan Fogler. It ran for over 1100 performances.
Since then it has been produced by countless professional, community and school theater groups.
This summer, ACT-CT in Ridgefield is giving us another production throough June 23.
The title of the show written by Rachel Sheinkin (Book) and William Finm (music and lyrics) describes the plot. It is set in a high school gym where a group of students assemble for the annual spelling bee. Most of the students are in their early teens. As they compete we learn about their individual lives. The mix is eclectic from the Asian girl tired of always trying to be “perfect” to the young man whose siblings view him as dumb and so on.
What makes the show charming is getting to know these young people as well the “comfort counselor” – an ex-con doing community service by providing a juice box and a hug as students are eliminated. We even see a possible budding romance.
From its beginning, the show has been cast with adult actors in the roles rather than appropriately aged performers. In fact Dan Floger who won a Tony playing William Barfee was in his early 30s.
This choice which has been continued in most professional productions can cause some issues; the actors must look, sound and act like they are under sixteen and that can be a challenge. If there is one major flaw in this enjoyable production, it is that believing these actors are no more than 16 is difficult. Only a few of them have the look that can pass as still developing in their facial structure and body.
The scenic design by Jack Mehler gives us a typical school gym with the banners, the sports equipment, the bleachers and more. Unlike other productions I’ve seen, the walls of the theater aren’t also part of the set with school posters and more.
The sound design by Megan Culley for the most part is good; this theater has a tendency to overly amp up the volume; in this production it is appropriate.
Michelle Tattenbaum has done a fine job with the direction, helping the cast bring out their individual students.
Each production of a show like this – with no “star” part – shifts its center of gravity based on individual performers. Whoever plays William Barfee has a good chance of being one of the main characters. But in this production, my eye was drawn to Ryan Williams who played, Mitch “comfort counselor.” He projected the energy and attitude of an ex-con doing community service, but you saw him gradually soften and starting to care about these students. On the other hand, I didn’t get as strong emotional reaction from Morgan Billings Smith who plays Olive, the speller whose father never gets there and whose mother has gone off to India.
This is an enjoyable production that teens will enjoy. For younger kids there are some references to puberty and its changes.
For tickets, visit ACT of CT.