By Tina Arth
Broadway Rose is celebrating its Silver Anniversary, appropriately, with a not-to-be-missed production of one of musical theatre’s most charming hidden gems, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Everything about this show just sparkles – it is young, witty, current, moving, and fundamentally honest – an energetic synthesis of low comedy and high drama woven into a whole that should appeal to, well, pretty much everybody. The music, vocals, and choreography are all at the expected Broadway Rose standard (and that’s a pretty high bar) but it is the acting that really moves this show over the top, and authors William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin should be proud of this loving, sensitive, and unstoppably funny incarnation of their work.
Director Annie Kaiser has done a wonderful job of finding and shaping six accomplished adult performers into the show’s unforgettable group of adolescent (and preadolescent) misfits competing in the mythical Putnam County for a place at the National Spelling Bee. Guided by three equally quirky adults (and accompanied on stage by four actual audience members – get there early if you want a chance to join this group!) the competitors vie to see who will be named champion. The road through puberty is as tricky and complex as the English language; somehow in the course of one act we are led through several touching (and at times hilarious) rites of liberation and maturation that ring true to anyone who has survived the syzygy (look it up, or see the show!) of pain and pleasure that define the teen years.
Singling out individual cast members in such a strong ensemble feels perilous, but (as the show teaches us) life isn’t fair, so I’ll name a handful. Lyle Bjorn Arnason (“Vice Principal Panch”) brings a bone-dry sarcasm to his role as word pronouncer, definer, and general rule enforcer, which makes his brief descent into human decency at the end all the more moving. Catherine Olson (“Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre”) is heart wrenchingly convincing as an overachieving ten year old dying to please her two dads (as if being president of her elementary school’s gay/straight alliance weren’t enough!). Troy Pennington (“William Morris Barfée”) plays the ultimate outsider – the big, funny looking nerd in glasses who spells the words out with his magic foot – yet Pennington somehow convinces us to fall in love with him. David Swadis (“Leaf Coneybear”) is a remarkable physical comedian who gets the biggest laughs, but still brings an appealing vulnerability to his role as the ultimate underdog. Finally, Danielle Purdy (“Olive Ostrovsky”) just nails it – if my endorphins hadn’t been in overdrive from the comedy I would have been driven to tears by her rendition of “The I Love You Song.”
Music director/keyboard player Jeffrey Childs and his colleagues provide flawless accompaniment to the show’s 18 songs (with just a little help from one hyper-competitive speller), and Dan Murphy’s choreography is almost as witty as the topical bios and definitions that pepper the show.
The show does deal with some mature themes, and is perhaps not appropriate for young children and early teens. Unless you fall into that demographic, get your tickets (soon…) and go!
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, February 28th.