’s rich theater
community has introduced us to a show we’ve never seen – this time, Theatre in
the Grove’s production of The 25th
Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – and it is well worth the drive to
Forest Grove. A small-time spelling bee seems an unlikely subject for musical
comedy, but director Zach Centers and his nine-person cast (all adults, and
aided by three somewhat befuddled audience members) deliver two hours of
fast-paced humor, pathos, and angst that manages to preserve some of the
improvisational flavor of the show’s origin. Washington
The story centers on six eccentric schoolchildren (of indeterminate ages) who are competing in the fictional
annual spelling bee. Last year’s winner, Chip, is a somewhat hyperactive boy
scout who is competing against Logainne, a young girl being raised by her two
fathers, Leaf, a dim and insecure boy who yearns for his family’s acceptance,
William, an obsessively competitive nerd, Marcy, a perennially and parentally
driven overachiever, and Olive, an impoverished but optimistic lost soul wending
her way through life with little parental support. The competition is ill-managed
by three pseudo-adults – Rona Lisa Peretti, who will never recapture the
long-lost glory of her own spelling bee victory, angry and frustrated Vice
Principal Panch, who will never be a principal (or very bright), and surprisingly
empathetic Mitch Mahoney, the unlikely ex-con “comfort counselor” working off
his community service hours by handing out hugs and juice boxes to eliminated
contestants. Putnam County
In a cast with no weak links, a few performances really demand special recognition. Brittney Spady (as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere) is by far the most successful at capturing the essence of awkward childhood. Her unusual lisp and effervescent outlook combine to capture the persona of a truly nice little girl. In contrast, Jason Yates (Vice Principal Panch) does a great job of portraying the classic public school martinet – everything by the book; what little power he has comes from dominating the weak. His stunning transformation at the end of the bee gives us hope that even the coldest bureaucrat may harbor some human tendencies. Brittany Bickel (as Olive Ostrovsky) really sells the whole show – her poignant enthusiasm provides a stark counterpoint to the “win at any cost” ethic of the competition, and the audience, like Panch, ultimately falls in love with this sensitive underdog.
Vocal director Justin Canfield (who also plays William) draws strong ensemble work as well as interesting solo performances (some lovely, some deliberately quite awful) from the cast. The small but mighty orchestra, conducted by Alicia Barrett, provides just the right musical touch – ranging from barely discernible to strident depending on the demands of the moment. Light designer Ward Ramsdell makes it possible for the cast to shift from high school gymnasium to intimate flashbacks and dreamlike spots.
TITG mainstay Zachary Centers (who served as costume and set designer in addition to his directorial role) has succeeded in capturing an often hilarious episode in the lives of his “children” that shows them negotiating the tricky waters between childhood innocence and adult realities (some of which render the show inappropriate for very young children). The Bee has two more weeks to run, and anyone who enjoys live musical theater will find a lot to like about this remarkable production.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is playing at Theatre in the Grove,
2028 Pacific Avenue,
Forest Grove through April 21st with performances Friday and
Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.