There's a character named Olive in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," the fizzy and fun musical with book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn. Olive is a fan of the dictionary, and she notes that her own name is an anagram for "I love." Well, Ms. Sheinkin and Mr. Finn, I definitely, positively love "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."
I think I've seen it three times now, although it might be four, and each one has been a little different, with a different character affecting me the most. But every production has been bright, charming, funny, sweet and a little sad, as we see six children (played by adults) angst over the nature of achievement, of being loved whether you win or not, and how hard it is to live up to expectations. And they do this while spelling impossible words and singing and dancing. And managing the four audience volunteer spellers who get dropped into the mix.
There are adult characters, and they're important, too, with a former spelling bee champ who has returned to run this one, a vice principal with anger management issues, and a tough guy parolee who acts as "comfort counselor," handing out hugs and juice boxes to departing spellers.
In the Illinois State University production, winningly directed by Cyndee Brown at the Center for the Performing Arts, everybody gets his moment to shine. The staging is mostly the same as the other productions I've seen, with a desk for the adults and simple bleachers for the kids that roll around when needed, but it still looks fresh and new with Adam Spencer's nifty high school gym set, with banners hanging from the rafters and doors that open onto a hallway of lockers.
What's most impressive is the voices in this cast. They're all terrific. I especially enjoyed the warmth and color in Cristen Susong's singing. She plays Rona Perretti, the former champ who still remembers her spelling triumph so long ago, and gives Ms. Perretti an irresistible sparkle. It's no wonder schlumpy Vice Principal Panch has a crush on her.
I was also taken with Abby Vombrack's bouncy take on Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, the socially conscious girl with two gay dads and a whole lot of pressure to win. Logainne has been more buttoned-down in previous productions, and I appreciated Vombrack's fresh spin.
Among the kids, Justin Treizenberg does very well with loopy Leaf Coneybear (my favorite character, I must admit), a sweet boy who sort of fell into the bee even if he isn't very smart; Latrecia Moffett is polished and serene as perfect Marcy Park; Danny Brooks is as annoying as he needs to be as William Barfée (pronounced Bar-FAY, as he tells us constantly), the boy whose magic foot powers him through the competition; and Andy Hudson has a lot of boy scout bravado as Chip Tolentino, last year's champ who has to cope with puberty this year. Clayton Joyner is really lovely and sings beautifully as Olive Ostrovsky, the neglected girl whose mother is off at an ashram in India; she gets a lot of emotional stuff to do and she carries it off quite well. Joyner doesn't make Olive as shy or self-conscious as usual, but she makes up for it with that big voice. The fact that she's beautiful doesn't hurt, either.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a favorite with smaller theater companies as well as schools because of the fairly small cast and easy staging, so if you miss one of the few performances left at ISU, don't despair. Another "Bee" will come along before you know it. But in the meantime, if you can get a ticket to this one, I would suggest you spell T-I-C-K-E-T-S and get yourself to the CPA.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin
ISU Center for the Performing Arts
Director: Cyndee Brown
Musical Director: Dennis Gotkowski
Scenic Designer: Adam Spencer
Costume Designer: Lauren Roark
Lighting Designer: Adam Spencer
Sound Designer: Sarah Putts
Choreographer: Becky Murphy
Cast: Cristen Susong, Andy Hudson, Abby Vombrack, Justin Treizenberg, Danny Brooks, Latrecia Moffett, Clayton Joyner, Jared Mason, LaRoyce Hawkins.
Remaining performances: October 15-16 at 7:30 pm