Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Partial review of *Putnam County Spelling Bee*

at Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater through June 26

(basically, the middle third of the review that will appear in The Pacific Northwest Inlander on Thursday, June 17)

... With the exception of the title song, composer/lyricist William Finn’s melodies aren’t particularly memorable. And this isn’t a glitz- or dance-heavy show. (It’s kids standing at microphones — not exactly a spectacle — though director Roger Welch maintains the flow with hyper-speed and slo-mo spelling sequences.) But in her book of the musical, Rachel Sheinkin is good at creating a sense of community, then building the tension before each speller performs.
The little mock-introductions that each speller receives — and the definitions they request when they’re up at the mic — are among Spelling Bee’s funniest lines. But there’s plenty of fun in the scripted parts of the show, too, as we follow the tribulations of our six contestants: the nerd, the Boy Scout, the unloved child, the multi-talented genius, the prodigy, the mystic hippie.
Playing the pressured-by-her-parents overachiever in “I Speak Six Languages,” for example, Yvonne Same demonstrates an impressive range of talents. She demonstrates a lot more than just fluency — martial arts, musicianship and other feats of physical prowess all made rapid-fire appearances.
The nose-picking nerd with his shirttail hanging out (Andrew Hartley, disgusting but vulnerable too) performs his “magic foot” spelling routine: He’s an oddball, but he’s going to stick to his oddball guns.
With nine actors playing twice that many characters, there’s a danger of repetition. But the show avoids predictable, one-after-another character revelations, and there are unexpected second-act sequences involving Jesus and the Taj Majal that propel the narrative unexpectedly toward satire and even compassion. With all the tonal shifts, cast members could afford to improve their diction: The CdA sound system can be harsh and blarey, and some of the rapid-fire details of characterization got muddled.
For all its displays of nerditude, Spelling Bee is a show with a heart. It’s effective whether or not you know or care about spelling bees, and it brings back all the fears and joys of youth.

[ photos by Young Kwak for The Inlander ]

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at NIC’s Boswell Hall, 1000 W. Garden Ave., Coeur d’Alene, on Thursdays-Saturdays, June 17-19 and June 24-26, at 7:30 pm, along with a matinee on Sunday, June 20, at 2 pm. Tickets: $41; $37, seniors; $27, children. Visit cdasummertheatre.com or call (208) 769-7780.

The same production transfers to the Idaho Rep at UI's Hartung Theater, Sixth St. and Stadium Way, Moscow, Idaho, on Monday-Friday, June 29-July 2, at 7:30 pm. Visit uidaho.edu/class/irt 

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