The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a relatively short musical (two hours, including an intermission) where the spelling matters little, but what it reveals about kids, parents and teachers does.
On the surface, Bee is a madcap mix of quirky nerds and misfits trying to best each other at a small-town spelling bee, but writer Rachel Sheinkin's Tony Award-winning script digs below that thin veneer to reveal the often painful relationships between parents and kids, kids and kids, and grownups in general.
Some of that revelation is obvious — the pushy parents, the pushed kids, the indifferent parents too involved with themselves to notice their kids, the eager-to-please kids — but some is more subtle and takes careful listening to pick up. But it's worth the effort, and, despite some sound glitches on opening night at Stage West Community Playhouse, it mostly came through, thanks to some fine performances by director Patty Villegas' cast and outfits by costumer Leanne Germann that helped define what the characters are all about.
This is an ensemble, but dorky vice principal Panch (Jeff Germann) gets the best laugh lines, as he define the words and uses them in a sentence for the contestants. Take "phylactery," a leather box used in Jewish prayers, for instance. The contextual sentence? "Billy, put down that phylactery; we're Episcopalian."
Christian Rice plays the ex-con Mitch Mahoney, who is serving as "comfort counseler" to the losing contestants as part of his community service duties, with an appealing mix of tough and touching. Sarah Huff's precocious Marcy Park is a wonder to behold as she dances around the stage in rebellious joy when she realizes she doesn't have to be perfect.
Michael Mekus is poignantly appealing as the hormone-challenged Chip Tolentino, who is ousted through no fault of his own, but reporting a later reward during the prefinale updates on the future lives of the contestants. Jessica Virginia does a subdued but effective job as the spelling bee moderator Rona Peretti.
Jacob Rice is sweetly appealing as Leaf Coneybear, his family's supposed "loser" who, nonetheless, comes to love and appreciate himself. Dani Lips plays the outspoken Logainne Schwartzandgrubinerre, the girl with two dads, with spunk and wit.
The show's darling is Julia Rifino as Olive Ostrovsky, the smart girl with the self-absorbed parents. Rifino's clear voice is pure joy in My Friend, The Dictionary and the moving The I Love You Song.
The most memorable character is Jamie Smeriglio's William Barfee, mainly because of Smeriglio's spot-on physical humor and mix of confidence and self-doubt.
Kris Hamlin does a good job in the double roles of Ralph, Miss Perretti's assisant, and Logainne's co-dad.
Composer-lyricist William Finn's score doesn't have a single hummable tune; most of the melodies are rather free-form. Even so, musical director Ashley McCall's eight-piece combo does a marvelous job.
Spelling Bee might not have the audience leaping to its feet, but it does provide a sweet and insightful evening of entertainment.