The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
With a simple, smart approach, Soubrette's debut show takes home the prize
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Oct. 7, 2011
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling BeeBoyd Vance Theatre, 1165 Angelina
Through Oct. 9
Running time: 1 hr., 50 min.
Before a speller is ever summoned to the mic, we get a glimpse inside the minds of the middle schoolers competing in this vocabulary showdown. On the floor where each will stand, alone, painstakingly stringing out in sequence the letters that form a word, a painted spiral swirls, with obscure terms and alphabetical characters flung around it like flotsam caught in a whirlpool. This image by set designer Ann Marie Gordon captures so much of what's going on inside this contest's kids: their heads spinning with dictionary words and meanings, and also their bodies and hearts reeling with adolescent urges and uncertainties.
This scenic element also says so much about what's right with Soubrette Productions' debut: It's simple yet smart and goes to the heart of the story spun by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin. In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, producer and director Philip Olson has selected a musical that won't bust the budget with Cameron Mackintosh-grade sets and costumes. You don't need more than a stage to be, well, a stage, and a handful of chairs, a desk, and a mic. What truly matters is who you put on that stage – chiefly the six performers who can tap into tween angst, the peculiar insecurity of those post-childhood, cusp-of-puberty years, and play it for both laughs and true feeling. Olson's cast is right at home in these adolescent skins, so endearingly awkward that even as you laugh at them, you want to give them a hug. The three adults steering them through this misery provide equally entertaining support, with special mention of Kylie Baker's Ms. Peretti, whose effervescent investment in the proceedings is hilariously engaging. These actors all get their characters and inhabit them with a graceful charm that makes the show so easy to enjoy. So many companies their first time out strain to impress. Soubrette doesn't, and with its modest, intelligent approach, it brings home the prize.