Skylight’s Spelling Bee Musical a Hard Sell

‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ should have been more fun.

By - Feb 10th, 2020 01:53 pm
(l. to r.) Samantha Sostarich (Rona Lisa Peretti), Robby McGhee (Douglas Panch) and Amanda Rodriguez (Olive Ostrovsky) in Skylight Music Theatre’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee running February 7 – February 23, 2020. Photo by Ross Zentner.

(l. to r.) Samantha Sostarich (Rona Lisa Peretti), Robby McGhee (Douglas Panch) and Amanda Rodriguez (Olive Ostrovsky) in Skylight Music Theatre’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee running February 7 – February 23, 2020. Photo by Ross Zentner.

This spelling bee musical has become a predictable preset game of Scrabble. It is now treated as a Broadway romp of adult actors pretending to be middle school children going through an energetic spelling bee in a gym, not only having fun with words, which gives a twist of improvisation, but mainly falling back on prepared sets of comic answers, some involving pre-selected audience members.

This is The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, being professionalized to death as if by amateurs through Feb. 23 at the Skylight’s Cabot Theatre – an energetic musical with no tunes or people memories to carry home.

But there are two disparate moments that suggest what the musical could have been – and may once have been in its creation a few years ago. One moment is a simple interpolated and slightly irreverent comedic riff on today’s plight of the royal family, and it reminds you of the improvisatory roots that gave spontaneity to this play becoming a musical, the sense of live joking spun out of real characters, an improvisatory looseness and charm that should still underpin the back and forth among the characters and the rules of the spelling contest.

Instead, the musical tends to treat its adolescents as spastic weirdos whose natural pubescent failures are conveyed with weird movement, goggle eyes and lisp exaggerations. The actors have mostly lost hold of the human underpinning of the fear of winning and losing that made this spelling bee and all other similar childish enterprises an entertaining human agony.

The other almost stop-dead moment occurs for “The I Love You Song,” in which three characters step out of their normal oversell to try to touch our hearts with an imagined moment of family togetherness.  For one number the actress usually used as a belting comic dominatrix emcee, Samantha Sostarich (a Skylight veteran), dons a green scarf and the guise of a caring absent mother while Shawn Holmes, who to this point has played the probation officer marching the losers off, also steps forward as a parent embracing Olive, the previously lost student contestant who has been missing her parents.

Ironically the choice of her spelling word, chimera (illusory happiness), brings out her parents. As Olive, Amanda Rodriguez responds as do her parents in the most human trio singing of the night, another sign that director Brian Cowing has lost the human way in too much gee-whiz, razzamatazz pandemonium, which I suspect he intended as a road back to the basics. But it is a road full of potholes.

The musical should require inching away from an overly broad style, but that seems to be what’s been built up over the years of performance. It’s been elevated into worn-out musical forms, full of grandiose big notes and huge acting gestures. It would be hard to return the pleasure of its original manner, but until productions do, the spelling bee is unworthy of special buzz.

The musical conceived by Rebecca Feldman still has inklings of the original intentions. The lone Asian onstage, well performed by diminutive Kendyl Ito, is an acrobatic comment on America’s expectations that all Asians are over-achievers while this one longs to put a foot wrong. An unnoticed highlight is Robby McGhee, the moderator of the spelling bee who has the funniest lines and the deadpan delivery of a radio announcer.

James Carrington tries to get too much mileage out of his lower lip – otherwise his “Magic Foot” number would be a genuine show stopper rather than calling attention to its methods. But this problem of overselling pandemonium extends to too much of the effort, though music director David Bonofiglio and his four piece band do a nice job pretending they are playing music worth remembering.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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