Theatreworks’ signature compassion and skill shines in this exuberant and empathetic holiday version of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
I have to admit that I went into this show with a bias–I’m not the biggest fan of Spelling Bee for a number of reasons. Some of it’s personal. I have always been both competitive and a bad speller, making a spelling bee seem like a special kind of hell. But beyond that, I’ve always found this show lacking in drive and heart. It’s often put on by children and community theater companies because it is such a collaborative and ensemble show. This allows for a lot of actors to have a turn in the spotlight, but it can also get muddy quickly since no one main character is there to drive the action or emotional heart of the show.
I only attended this show because I had faith in the team at TheatreWorks. They didn’t disappoint. Their production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. brims with humor and heart and deftly avoids moments that tip into overacting and annoyance in less skillful productions.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee presents a set of six kids to the audience–each of whom are dealing with their own set of problems and responding to them in a way that gracefully marries musical theater and reactions that seem very genuine for the age-range of the characters.
Performed without an intermission, the hour-and-a-half-long show keeps up a brisk pace, bringing on audience members to fill out the spelling roster. Between spelling words, we get glimpses into the lives of the spellers and three supervising adults. Funny, charming and occasionally heartbreaking, these peaks into their pasts fill out the children from stereotypes into compelling characters who you want to comfort when the wrong answer bell eventually sends them off stage.
All of the actors have individual moments to shine both in individual and ensemble moments. It’s hard to pull out any individuals when the play’s success is so contingent on everyone working as a whole. While I could praise every actor on stage, a few performances stood out as finding a particularly delicate balance between emotion and melodrama.
As homeschooled child Leaf Coneybear, actor Blake Kevin Dwyer had one of the harder roles in the show to rescue from ridiculousness. However, Dwyer's performance is so sweet and guileless, that Leaf never once feels unbelievable. Dave J. Abrams gave a powerhouse performance as Chip Tolentino, bringing undeniable energy to one of the show’s most fun numbers, “Pandemonium,” and then again as a heely-wearing version of Jesus in another speller’s song.
Maia Campbell, playing Olive Ostrovsky, has the most emotionally moving song of the show. Once again, it’s a song that is easy to lean too far into and thereby ruin its resonance. “The I Love You Song” has the possibility to make or break the show and Campbell nails it with an understated mix of longing and gravity that elevates the show’s emotional heart. Honestly, even if the rest of the show had been underwhelming, I could justify recommending the show on the strength of this number alone. As it stands, this song toward the end of the show creates and throughline of hope and empathy that brings everything together.
TheatreWorks puts on a truly delightful production of an okay musical. I maintain my opinion that this musical tips very easily into unwatchable territory. However, this production avoids all the pitfalls to put on a fun and heart-warming show.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Through: December 24, 2023
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto 94301
Tickets: theatreworks.org, (877) 662 8976
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne