Charming and absurd caricatures highlight an underrated comedic book in Oak Grove High School Theatre’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Central Hall.
Contemporary musical 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee follows the inner turmoil of six bright young hopefuls as they compete in their local district spelling championships. Originally developed and performed in a high school auditorium, Spelling Bee finds a cosy home in Central Hall in this production by Oak Grove High School Theatre (representing North America as part of the 2018 American High School Theater Festival) with a naturalistic set that positions the audience as attendees of the Bee.
Three-time district champion and judge Rona Lisa Peretti (Delaney Dukes) serves as the calm moderator of both the show and Bee, introducing us to the ‘spellers’ and the grand tradition itself. Encouraging and reflective, Delaney brings a quiet likability to the role. Contrastingly, ‘official word pronouncer’ Vice Principal Douglas Punch (Liam McCarty) is comical in his inability to relate to the young contestants and determination to hold onto decorum as the competition falls into hormonal chaos.
The contestants themselves are a cast of wonderfully crafted caricatures, including the tightly wound protege Logainne Shwartzandgrubenierre, all-business perfectionist Marcy Park and oblivious dreamer Leaf Coneybear. But Wade King steals the show as self-important William Barfeé, who stretches and massages his “magic foot” before using it to spell out words on the ground, and had the audience with stitches each time he preceded his spelling with drawn-out “ahhh, yes of course” as if acknowledging the mention of an old foe.
Many of the best laughs come from the unexpected contestants: audience members pulled out of the crowd to participate in the Bee. The bewilderment of these adversaries is second only to the screams of indignation when one of them is asked to spell “cow”.
For the most part, the score is upbeat and inconsequential – capturing the naive hopes and fears of the characters. The exception to this is The I Love You Song, a sucker punch of an 11 o’clock number, in which contestant Olive Ovatrovsky envisions an outpouring of love from her distant parents. The singing in the production suffers slightly from the lack of a musical director and live band. This will hopefully improve throughout the run. Above all else, Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony award-winning book is the real star of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Equal parts clever and absurd, Sheinkin gives the cast so much to play with in this celebration of nerds and words.