In the haunting darkness of Squirrel Hill, I approached the entrance to Taylor Allderdice High School and followed the excited sounds of activity. The school's 2012 musical, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," follows the story of six middle schoolers competing to win the title challenge, discovering the joys and miseries of an especially heated intellectual contest.
As a former speller myself, I remember the incomparable thrill of winning my middle school spelling bee in seventh grade. At the regional competition, however, I misspelled the word "spinet" -- and I have never forgiven myself. Had I the "Magic Foot" talents of William Barf??e (Evan Harris) or the bouncy vitality of Logaine Schwarzandgrubeniere (Martha Ann Larkin), perhaps my story would be as interesting as theirs.
"Putnam" is famed for its use of several audience members as spellers in the Bee -- I, however, am famed for my complete lack of Broadway musical knowledge. When I heard a woman's bubbly voice behind me inquire after a ticket-holder's interest in "audience participation," I was unexpectedly seized with both trepidation and temptation. A mixture of misanthropy and fear kept me from volunteering my own stage talents, but my appetite was whetted. Any company bold enough to involve a fraction of its audience was sure to put on a vivacious performance.
Each speller in "Putnam" is introduced through flashbacks, with the other actors playing parts in their memories. Rona Lisa Peretti (Eve Swearingen), one of the moderators, enters to prepare for the competition -- with a flashback to her own winning word "syzygy" twenty-two years earlier. Rona then introduces the other spellers as well as the official word-giver, Vice Principal Panch (Daniel Keitel). Said the actress to a soon-laughing crowd, Panch was the replacement for the Principal, a man recently "arrested in connection with some local bomb threats." Topical local humor aside, the Bee begins after Panch comedically draws out the Pledge of Allegiance -- and the official Spelling Bee Rules are read to the contestants.
A zealous bunch, each character comes on the back of talent, pure luck, and a unique set of circumstances. William Barfee (Evan Harris) is overconfident and supernaturally gifted, with his "Magic Foot" spelling tricks. Logaine Schwarzandgrubeniere (Martha Ann Larkin), the youngest and most animated speller, has spent her whole life preparing to take down her older peers. Olive Ostrovski (Juliet Supowitz), a lonely dictionary-lover, first arrives alone and unable to pay her own entrance fee. Leaf Coneybear (Khoi Dao) only advanced to the county finals because the first-place and second-place winners of his regional competition both had to attend a Bat Mitzvah. Marcy Park (Sydney DonGiovanni), a ruthless perfectionist, threatens to take the next in a series of wins. The previous year's winner, Chip Tolentino (Larry McKay), finds his adolescence irrevocably interfering with his abilities -- distracted by his own disconcerting erection. Shocking the audience with mature themes, while unexpected, ultimately proved to be a useful tool for character development.
By far the most entertaining aspect of the show arose from the comedy stylings of the official Bee pronouncer. Darting between the roles of Vice Principal Panch, Olive's father, and Logaine's father, Daniel Keitel kept the show alive with well-placed wit ready at every new word call. One of the spellers selected from the audience, an Allderdice teacher, was given the word "education," to the audience's delight. When she requested a definition and the word's language of origin, Keitel responded with an ignorant adolescent's "I don't know what it means," and guessed at "Latin or Greek, I guess." Such tone-perfect quips gave "Putnam" its true comedic charm.
Extemporizing on stage and keeping the comedy alive, the cast of "Putnam" distracted from some of the show's more faltering aspects. Audibility and detectable enthusiasm during the musical numbers were lacking, with few songs finding a balance between the two. Much of the ensemble seemed to be simply dancing a path through rehearsed movements -- but, thanks to the cast's quick wit and threaded repartee, Allderdice's humorous production of "Putnam" proved to be thoroughly enjoyable.
The Kelly Critics is a joint program of the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh CLO's Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musicals, in which students at Kelly schools review musicals at other Kelly schools. Reviews are edited by senior theater critic Christopher Rawson (firstname.lastname@example.org), a long-time Kelly Awards judge.
First Published May 9, 2012 4:30 AM