- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

Featuring quick-witted, Lewis Carroll-like lyrics by William Finn and a wildly funny book by Rachel Sheinkin (based on an original idea by Rebecca Feldman), the Tony Award-winning musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is letter-perfect entertainment.

The show’s structure, a fierce competition, echoes the classic musical, “A Chorus Line,” only instead of a group of angst-ridden and ambitious dancers we have six youngsters grappling with double consonants and the first stirrings of puberty. Nonplussed by the spelling of such words as “pyrrhuloxia” and “hallux,” the kids are practically swamped by first crushes, burgeoning rebelliousness and feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. But even though they might be losers, you’ll find their intelligence and social ineptness completely winning.

The geek squad is played by adult actors marvelously able to tap into their cringe-worthy elementary school years. Marcy Park (a cart-wheeling, piano-playing Katie Boren) is the Asian whiz at spelling, math, and just about everything else, but as her solo number “I Can Speak Six Languages” suggests, secretly she’s just a girl who wants to have fun. Chip Tolentino (Miguel Cervantes), last year’s spelling bee winner, feels confident he’ll be able to do it again, if only his changing body will cooperate.

Chip’s song, “Lament,” is a sidesplitting ode to surging hormones, which Mr. Cervantes aces while running up and down the aisles throwing fundraising candy to the audience.

Poor William Barfee (Eric Petersen, possessing a supple, leading man’s singing voice), saddled with a nasal drip problem and a lamentable last name — “it’s Bar-FAY,” he insists to the uncaring vice principal, Douglas Panch (James Kall).

William does own a special foot, which he uses to spell out words across the floor, sort of like erudite soft shoe. In “Magic Foot,” he celebrates how an eccentricity has propelled him to the top. The girl who claims his oafish heart is Olive Ostrovsky (a heart-rending Lauren Worsham), who reads the dictionary while sitting on the potty as a tyke. The dictionary became her source of solace and comfort, since being neglected by her workaholic father and spiritual path-seeking mother, as expressed in the poignant song “Chimera.”

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (understudy Dana Steingold, filling in for an ailing Sarah Stiles, who left the show shortly into the first part) is the product of two overachieving homosexual dads who encourage her to be the president of the homosexual and lesbian alliance at her elementary school, but apparently don’t feel the need to do anything about her speech impediment. Logainne’s penchant for the sibilance results in her getting every multiple “s” word on the planet.

On the other side of the spectrum is granola-crunching Leaf Coneybear (Michael Zahler), who nobody, not even his siblings Marigold and Pine Cone, believe will achieve anything notable.

The spelling bee is presided over by the relentlessly perky Rona Lisa Peretti (Jennifer Simard), who deserves a gold star for keeping the show going with improv and school cheers on opening night when Miss Stiles fell ill and during the multiple sound problems. Her partner in support is Mitch Mahoney (Alan H. Green), a combination of Mr. T and Ice-T who is doing his community service as a “comfort counselor” and dispenses juice boxes and stiff hugs to the losers.

To add to the hilarity, audience members can sign up in the lobby for a chance to serve as on-stage spellers — although everything from clothing choices to hair color are fair game for Miss Peretti’s satiric introductions. On Wednesday night, one teenage volunteer did so well on the spelling he momentarily flummoxed the cast, until quick thinking resulted in a word that would stump Roget.

“Putnam County” features intricate ditties by Mr. Finn, but also Miss Sheinkin’s smart-alecky dialogue, especially the comically unhelpful descriptive sentences offered by the proctors, such as “Billy, quick! Duck behind this Western Wall. I think I see a jihad coming” and “Sally’s mother told her it was her cystitis that made her special.” With the success of the wordsmith movies “Spellbound,” “Bee Season,” and “Akeelah and the Bee” on DVD, it’s suddenly hip to know that “judgment” has only one “e,” but “changeable” has two of them.

Spelling bees are like “Survivor” for dweebs, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more lovable bunch of brainiac misfits than in “Putnam County,” which does for etymology what “West Side Story” did for chinos sales.

***

WHAT: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin

WHERE: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 1.

TICKETS: $25 to $70

PHONE: 800/551-SEAT

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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