By Bridgette M. Redman
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” hinges on broad stereotypes that are slowly transformed to real people with real concerns.
The Tibbits Opera House production features talented actors in an absolutely delightful performance venue presenting this hilarious musical that falls just short of its potential. Director Raymond Gabica pulled back from making the broad choices that give this comedic musical an extra edge. The result is a show that is still entertaining and funny, but lacks the punch that this musical often delivers.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a slightly interactive musical in which the theater audience becomes the audience of the spelling bee and brave volunteers are brought up as additional spellers to fill out the ranks of six children whose stories make up the heart of the musical. Each of the six embody a different stereotype — the alpha male Chip Tolentino (Timothy Fuchs), the politically correct activist with two dads Logainne Schartzandgrubenniere (Ali Gritz), the insecure hippie child Leaf Coneybear (Greg Pragel), the always-sick nerd William Barfee (Brian Sage), the over-achiever parochial school student Marcy Park (Katie Quigley) and the lonely child with absent parents, Olive Ostrovsky (Aisling Halpin).
All of these children start out as stereotypes until lyricist William Finn and playwright Rachel Sheinkin reveal their stories and fears in cutaways that show the children interacting with others and struggling to find their place in a world where they definitely don’t fit.
The most committed and delightful performances come from Sage, Quigley, Halpin and Pragel, each of whom embrace their characters’ flaws. Their energetic choices make their characters likeable and sympathetic. Their voices are strong, their singing fantastic, and their individual quirkiness shines through. Sage in particular nearly steals the show as the obnoxious speller with a magic foot who can only breathe out of one nostril.
This ensemble, along with strong support from Charles Burr as Vice Principal Douglas Panch and Tiffany Wisend’s very perky Rona Lisa Perretti, make the show both fun and touching. They work well together, keeping the energy high and raising the stakes for each character as the show progresses.
Fuchs had a sweet-sounding voice, but it was weak compared to the other singers. He lacked the vocal support to fill an auditorium the way most of his fellow actors could. The relative weakness of his voice was exacerbated by the fact that his character was supposed to be the confident alpha male, the jock, the popular teen. It was especially noticeable in a trio where his voice was lost while Wiesend and Halpin were raising the rafters with their very moving and soaring song about her alienation from the parents she loves and who love her. Fuchs’ elimination from the Bee can be one of the funnier moments of the show, but it was played in a very reserved fashion and he failed to deliver the joke about the word that he was given to spell and its connection with his “unfortunate erection.”
There were also missed opportunities in Jared Wietbrock’s portrayal of the grief counselor Mitch Mahoney who was doing community service as a condition of his parole. He played the character straight rather than giving it the typical accents or body movements that match the words. For example, he talks about how he gives everyone a juice box and a hug, but very few hugs were given.
Musical Director Cheryl VanDuzen was — as she has been all summer — superlative in her musical direction and work at the piano keyboard. She provides on-time sound cues and music at the perfect volume.
The opening night performance was also aided by volunteer spellers who were willing to play to the spirit of the bee and added to the humor of the show. The final guest speller to be eliminated delighted the audience when she spelled a particularly difficult word that was primarily passed down through oral tradition with only one known written citation.
Erin Tucker’s costuming was somewhat hit or miss. She did an excellent job with the women’s costuming, but made odd choices with some of the men. The Bee’s host tells us that Coneybear makes his own clothes, but everything he was wearing looked straight off a rack. It didn’t match, nor was it even slightly stylish, but it didn’t look handmade either. The “cape” he was given was so small that there was very little Pragel could do with it, though he did the best with what he had. Typically in this show, Chip Tolentino sports a Boy Scout outfit. While he came on wearing a scouting hat, it was soon removed and there was no other apparent choice about his outfit that spoke to who the character was.
If you’ve never seen “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” it truly is a show worth seeing. The Tibbits Opera House does an OK job with it, despite it not being up to the standard of their other shows this summer. If you’ve seen the show before, you might find yourself disappointed that it lacks the commitment to comedy this musical is known for and instead presents a rather reserved and timid interpretation.
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’
Tibbits Summer Theatre, 14 S. Hanchett St., Coldwater. Wednesday-Sunday through Aug. 14. $20-$26. 517-278-6029. http://www.tibbits.org