What if you could peer into the hearts and minds of the participants of a middle-school spelling bee, just to see what makes them tick? What’s motivating them? What performance rituals do they employ to correctly spell words like autochthonous or eudaemonic?
Cottage Theatre’s new production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee answers these questions and more in a winning production directed by Mark VanBeever.
Centering on six bee contestants vying for the prestigious title, along with a handful of pre-selected audiences members, the show features music and lyrics by William Finn, with a book by Rachel Sheinkin.
The script is snappy, and Sheinkin’s writing prevails — the jokes are good enough that, even without uniformly pitch-perfect comic timing among the cast, they don’t lose much punch.
A few actors really dig into their roles to find the funny: Ward Fairbairn, as vice-principal Douglas Panch, is stalwartly unflappable as he reads increasingly off-color word definitions. Traci Knights is wry and knowing as Mitch Mahoney, the “comfort counselor” and community service parolee assigned to ushering the failing contestants offstage with a juice box and a hug.
Tracy Nygard as Rona Lisa Perretti, the bee’s overseer, is the perfect blend of maternal champion and administrative battle-axe. Joel Ibanez, as Chip Tolentino, infuses his role with adolescent exasperation. And, though fleeting, Bill Morrill as Dan Dad has tremendous charm.
Putnam offers such middle-school familiars as the mooning pubescent, the overscheduled perfectionist, the lisping high-achiever, the spacey savant, the ugly duckling with adenoid issues and the kid who’s ignored at home. The cast gamely tackles these tropes, and the show is frothy enough that their emotional investigations are appropriately deep. I mean, it’s not King Lear, though audiences may wish for a bit more engagement among the actors when they’re onstage but not speaking or singing.
The songs move things along and the live band is a wonderful addition. VanBeever does double duty as conductor and keyboardist, with additional keyboards by Keri Davis, drums and percussion by Nick Alvarez and woodwinds by David Richards.
Janet Witlow’s set is fabulous, transforming the theater into a believably institutional “cafetorium.” Costumes by Rhonda Turnquist fit the bill. And clever lighting design by Amanda Ferguson continually shifts among the spelling bee itself, the characters’ internal drive and a lively dissolution of the fourth wall. — Rachael Carnes
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through Feb. 14 at Cottage Theatre; tickets available at cottagetheatre.org.