One doesn't often think of attending a spelling bee for laughs. But thanks to Ford's Theatre's remounting of the Broadway smash The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, spelling words has never been more fun.
The musical follows six awkward adolescents and their proctors, all working through a daunting and hilarious spelling championship quest.
The richly drawn but easily identifiable characters drive the plot of this musical comedy. Director Peter Flynn wisely cast a group of D.C.-based thespians, as their familiarity with one another helps to keep the interactions fun and loose. There's know-it-all William Barfee (Vishal Vaidya playing nerdy to perfection), who uses the power of a "magic foot" to help him spell correctly; homeschooled Leaf Coneybear (the smile-inducing Nickolas Vaughan), who gets to the Bee on a lark; lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (the adorable Kristen Garaffo), who is the most politically outspoken of the bunch; ultrasmart Marcy Park (a determined Felicia Curry); last year's winner Chip Tolentino (a boyish Vincent Kempski), who picks the wrong time to hit puberty; and the optimistic loaner Olive Ostrovsky (standout Carolyn Agan), a latchkey kid whose dictionary is her best friend.
Some of the show's best lines are delivered during the word introductions by Vice Principal Douglas Panch, played with hilarity by Matthew A. Anderson, whose timing and haphazard attitude with the pronunciations and definitions cause loads of laughter in the house.
Kudos also go out to Kevin McAllister as ex-convict/comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, whose hugs, facial expressions, and juice boxes make way for some hilarious exits when the spellers hear the bell.
From the very first notes of the uplifting title song through the catchy "Pandemonium" and various "Goodbye" songs, the cast bursts with energy.
William Finn's music and lyrics remain as fresh as they did when the show played New York's Circle in the Square Theatre in 2005, and the Tony Award-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin has held up well. The show's tenderest moment comes when Agan sings the beautiful ballad "The I Love You Song." She also has great chemistry with Vaidya. Their interaction turns the would-be villain Barfee ("rhymes with parfait") into someone the audience can get behind.
Through the song "I'm Not That Smart," Vaughan gains some sympathy for Leaf, and his endearing childlike actions (including wearing a helmet onstage) are spot-on. Each time he thinks he is down and out, Leaf goes into a sort of trance. Vaughan's wide-eye robotic movements are a treat to watch.
There's plenty of heart in the story, mostly thanks to moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (a winning Rachel Zampelli), who herself was a Spelling Bee champion (winning on the word "syzygy"). Throughout, she sings about her ever-changing "favorite moment at the Bee."
When four audience members are invited onstage to be contestants and spell words, the cast improvs lines and "plays around" with fellow Bee contestants. Here, Zampelli brings the laughs with her descriptions of the would-be spellers' backgrounds.
The production does take some liberties with Sheinkin's book, adding current references such as Jennifer Lawrence tripping on the red carpet and Dayton ruining the NCAA bracket. The script also works in nods to its setting at Ford's, including a joke about the Bee's sponsor being Lincoln Waffles where no "booths" are allowed.
Unlike the Broadway production, which had audience members sitting on mats with the action very close, Court Watson's scenic design makes great use of the historic theater's large stage, turning it into a modern-day school assembly. Costumes by Wade Laboissonniere help differentiate each character. They transform the actors into the grade-schoolers they played.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a delight for young and old (although it does get a little PG-13 at times), and it is worthy of much A-P-P-L-A-U-S-E.