By Mark Howell
'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," now in performance at Waterfront Playhouse, is a lively musical for word lovers and people likers alike. Its high-energy ensemble all obviously love each other and those of them acting as the kids appear to have left behind their adult sides altogether. (One of the first laughs in the show is the program itself, which sports photos of all the principals and production staff as children-- you gotta see these!)
The play started out life as "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E," written and composed by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin from an idea created by a company, The Farm, devoted to developing and rehearsing material born from the pressure of deadlines (one of its previous projects was "Why I Hate Florida").
This version is directed by Danny Weathers, heroic director of, most recently, "August: Osage County, "Twelve Angry Men" and "Urinetown." Choreography is by Penny Leto, a former Fabulous Spectrelle who also worked on, among other musicals, "Reefer Madness" and "The Full Monty" and 20 years of "DanceWorks!" at the Tennessee Williams. Set designer Michael Boyer wittily recreates the high-school gymnasium of his youth, as does costume designer Leigh Hooton the school outfits of hers. The band is brilliantly in the hands of Michael Fauss, Nancy 3. Hoffman and Max Zemanovic.
The spellers include Marc Crow, sweetly ingenuous as "Chip Colentino;" Kristen Michelle, a live-wired "Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere;" Justin Ahearn, larger than life as "Leaf Coneybear;" Eric Cole totally barfay as "William Barfee;" Rebecca Larkin slayingly sharp as "Marcy Park;" and Jessica Miano Kruel quite enchanting as "Olive Ostrovsky." Each of them makes each of their parts their own and you can't wait for their turn at bat. Barfee's infernal magic foot ("it's an alphabeta way to spell") and dear Olive's confession that she was once entered as roadkill in a Hallowe'en contest are double-over funny.
The onstage adults are Gayla Morgan, a perfectly perfect schoolmarm; Joe McMurray deeply funny as the vice principal; and Kennedy Pugh, altogether convincing as the comfort counsellor. Maturity really is another country.
Memorable highlights in a bright "Spelling Bee" include an appearance by Jesus ("I thought he was Asian," murmurs Ms. Park). And then, of course, there's the erection song (much applause). And a funny bit of business is the inclusion of four adults who-- spoiler alert! -- are pre-selected from the audience to undergo, for awhile, the parts of four contestants in the spelling bee. We were witness, on both the nights we went, to real-world reactions by fellow audience members at being slandered ("This contestant is currently writing an opera for the kazoo") and, even if they spell their words right, then serenaded off with, "Farewell, goodbye, you were good but not good enough...." (Thank goodness it wasn't me. Really!).
Proof that audiences in fact have a truly good time at "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is evidenced in the applause that breaks out energetically whenever a character onstage spells a word right. The audience applauds with surprising sincerity, too, when the winner of the bee is presented with a $200 prize and the runner-up $25. How interactive is that?
This Putnam County Spelling Bee may not be "August in Osage County" (the Waterfront's big hit this season) but, hey, "I love to spell ... I love it a lot -- The dictionary is a very reliable friend!"
Performances run Tuesday to Saturday through April 7, starting at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 294-5015.