New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Connecticut Theater

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"
Downtown Cabaret Theatre, Bridgeport

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a quirky, somewhat endearing show that was a New York success in 2008. With music and lyrics by William Finn, it is not surprising that it won numerous awards and enjoyed a long Broadway run. Though “Putnam” is not every one’s idea of comedy, the New York box office proved otherwise.

And now, in its meanderings, “Putnam” makes its appearance at Downtown Cabaret. This particular production has its triumphs and its tribulations. On the one hand, the Cabaret sound system has such difficulties that words are difficult to decipher, and Finn’s clever lyrics--and the story itself--are often lost. Despite this drawback, the show improves as the evening moves on. Initially, Putnam County’s crack spellers come across as outlandish freaks who cavort on stage endlessly. But as the second act gets down to business, there are better signs—with clearer, more human characterizations, richer material, and more believable excitement.

Hence the show itself improves, and director Tobi Beth Silver and cast are equal to the task. With Lisa Maietta‘s choreography, the six over-achievers (played by Kenneth Francoeur, Lauren Ford, Kevin William Reed, Andrew Hendrick, Kiyo Takami, and Julie Benko) create a tightly-knit ensemble. What adds to the fun—and effective audience participation--is that four young theatergoers are recruited from the audience to become contestants. The cast is rounded out by Maria Vee and Richard Rowan as the teacher and vice-principal who run the event, assisted by DaRon Lamar Williams (who comforts the losers as they exit off-stage). All three add strong stage presences. The four-piece band headed by Stan Wietrzychowski on keyboard (with Aron Smith on keyboard, Gary Ruggiero on horns and Gabriel Nappi on drums/percussion) also keeps proceedings on a high musical level.
What’s it all about? “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is just what its title implies—a kids’ spelling bee. (By coincidence, the national spelling bee competition was recently televised, and one might have done better to watch the real thing—though, of course, sans Finn’s tunes.) Although “Putnam” is meant to entertain, not instruct, there is nonetheless a darker message. This particular American phenomenon—the spelling bee—demands extreme competitive behavior (which some of us view as unhealthy in youngsters)…Coaching and training are indeed carried to extremes, and those who conceived and wrote “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (Rebecca Feldman and Rachel Sheinkin) have handled this theme with wit and wisdom.

--Irene Backalenick
June 13, 2010

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