They made fun of him for being bald. They accused him of reviewing elementary school plays and picking on little-kid actors. Then they made him stand up in public and try to spell words that nobody has ever even heard of....
Coeur d’Alene Summer Theater is opening its season with a nice little musical called The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (through June 26). It’s about three neurotic adults who run a competition for a half-dozen misfit middle schoolers, and it’s a pleasant diversion, filled with capable actors and a healthy dose of audience participation.
Which reminds me, that fellow they brought in from the audience as their final volunteer speller — simply brilliant, that guy. He joined in the singing, danced in circles, jumped up and down. They oughta feature him every night. So handsome….
Wake up, dear — you’ve been dreaming.
But I really did get called up from the Spelling Bee audience on opening night. The stern vice principal (played by Interplayers’ Reed McColm) really did call me to the microphone, fixing me with his glare. He was assisted by Laura Sable (appropriately chirpy as a locally famous real estate agent who’s still basking in memories of past spelling-bee glory). And then the two of them proceeded to make fun of me with their clever little introductions, their smarmy responses when I asked for a word’s definition and usage.
(Though I fared better than KXLY’s Robyn Nance. When she asked them to use her word — “newsworthy” — in a sentence, the response was: “Most stories covered by TV stations are not newsworthy.” Ouch.)
With the exception of the title song, composer/lyricist William Finn’s melodies aren’t particularly memorable. And this isn’t a glitz- or dance-heavy show. (It’s kids standingat microphones — not exactly a spectacle — though director Roger Welch maintains the flow with hyper-speed and slo-mo spelling sequences.) But in her book of the musical, Rachel Sheinkin is good at creating a sense of community, then building the tension before each speller performs.
The little mock-introductions that each speller receives — and the definitions they request when they’re up at the mic — are among Spelling Bee’s funniest lines. But there’s plenty of fun in the scripted parts of the show, too, as we follow the tribulations of our six contestants: the nerd, the Boy Scout, the unloved child, the multi-talented genius, the prodigy, the mystic hippie.
Playing the pressured-by-her-parents overachiever in “I Speak Six Languages,” for example, Yvonne Same demonstrates an impressive range of talents. She demonstrates a lot more than just fluency — martial arts, musicianship and other feats of physical prowess all made rapid-fire appearances.
The nose-picking nerd with his shirttail hanging out (Andrew Hartley, disgusting but vulnerable too) performs his “magic foot” spelling routine: He’s an oddball, but he’s going to stick to his oddball guns.
With nine actors playing twice that many characters, there’s a danger of repetition. But the show avoids predictable, one-after-another character revelations, and there are unexpected second-act sequences involving Jesus and the Taj Majal that propel the narrative unexpectedly toward satire and even compassion. With all the tonal shifts, however, cast members could afford to improve their diction: The CdA sound system can be harsh and blarey, and some of the rapid-fire details of characterization got muddled.
For all its displays of nerditude, though, Spelling Bee is a show with a heart. It’s effective whether or not you know or care about spelling bees, and it brings back all the fears and joys of youth.
Two of the contestants, for example, discover a shared interest in wordplay — and a shared interest in each other. They’re the kind of kids who stand alone out by the fence on the playground — and in fact, each of these six spellers is unloved or neglected in some way. But isn’t that the hole in all our hearts? All of us just want somebody to love us, somebody to care. And if we could also get a chance to show off in public everything we’ve worked so hard to learn — well, that’d be nice too.
One of the show’s running jokes involves the uncom forting “comfort counselor,” Mitch (played with comic sullenness by J. Reese). He gives each defeated speller a hug and a juice box.
Well, my juice box has a picture of Sesame Street’s Big Bird. And I’m going to keep it, like, forever.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at NIC’s Boswell Hall, 1000 W. Garden Ave., Coeur d’Alene, on Thursdays-Saturdays, June 17-19 and June 24-26, at 7:30 pm, along with a matinee on Sunday, June 20, at 2 pm. Tickets: $41; $37, seniors; $27, children. Visit cdasummertheatre.com or call (208) 769-7780.