The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

For real spelling bee champs, see Spellbound. For their comic counterparts, see this.

Arts Review

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Zach Theatre Kleberg Stage, through Nov. 8

Running time: 2 hr, 15 min

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Zach Theatre is silly, campy, and even absurd at times. It's also so much fun. There is no complex plot to explore here. It's a spelling bee. Six students compete for the county title with a ravenous, anxious desperation. Each has his or her own story and reason for being there; one by one, they fall until a winner is decided. Basically, it's like an actual spelling bee but with musical interludes and some delicious humor at the expense of kids who go in for that sort of brainy competition. For a look at what real spelling bee champs are like, watch the excellent documentary Spellbound. For a bout of good, clean laughter at the expense of others, go see Spelling Bee.

Under Dave Steakley's direction, Zach puts together a package event, from the program's school-age portraits of the actors in place of professional head shots to the musicians being dressed as cafeteria workers. The set, designed by Michael Raiford, brings back memories of the cafetorium days of one's youth, with those fold-up tables with the stools attached and the awful tile floor of questionable color selection.

Spelling Bee also benefits from a strong group of actors. Many people might find it an iffy choice to cast the only black actor in the production as the guy on parole, using the bee to fulfill his court-ordered community service requirement. Having said that, as Mitch Mahoney, Bernard Davis performs well, and in a cast of many great singers, his voice stands out as exceptionally powerful and clear. His few numbers alone are worth the price of a ticket, especially the "I Love You Song," performed with Lucy Jennings and Jill Blackwood, who are good singers in their own right.

Actually, the "I Love You Song" is so good that it almost gets in the way of the rest of the show. It's a sincere and surprisingly emotional song squeezed into a musical of ridiculous moments. Otherwise, Spelling Bee, as conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, and additional material by Jay Reiss, is solid, straightforward, and uncomplex.

In all, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is what it is: a silly evening of well-produced fun. And that's okay. Not every production needs to reach the same depths as King Lear. Sometimes, it's nice to enjoy some simple, quirky entertainment, too.

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Zach Theatre, Dave Steakley, Jill Blackwood, Les McGehee, Bernard Davis, Lucy Jennings, Michael Raiford

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