By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Nothing in theater ever makes sense. You figure you write a musical, get it to a producer who decides to stage it – or not – and it turns out to be a hit – or not. But no show I’ve ever heard about has ever made it to Broadway in such a simple, straightforward manner. It’s all an incredibly hard slog where surprises – most of them awful – are waiting to pounce just around the corner. Yet even in this world of twisty, turny paths, the trajectory of the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is remarkable.
It began life as a non-musical by Rebecca Feldman called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, a comedy about a small-town spelling bee that was created and performed mostly with improv. One of the performers was also a nanny for the child of the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who saw and loved the show. She told her friend, composer and lyricist William Finn, he should develop it further.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through May 19. Andrew Carnegie Free Library Music Hall. Carnegie. 412-429-6262. stage62.com
Finn, along with book writer Rachel Sheinkin and additional material from Jay Reiss, turned the material into a one-act musical that became a Broadway smash in 2005.
Putnam County is an intermission-less musical set in a high school gymnasium where six kids, all played by adult actors, have reached the final round in the local spelling bee. In addition to the kids, there are also three adult characters, but they’ve got more baggage than the cargo hold of a 747.
Grown-ups playing kids sounds like it could be cutesy beyond belief, but Finn has a tremendous ability to write about big emotions without once being sentimental. At its heart, Putnam County is about six kids who at every other place in their lives are looked on as nerds and losers. Here, they are superstars. All any of them want, really, is just to be loved by their parents. Thanks to Finn’s music and lyrics, and Sheinkin’s book, the evening features big laughs with plenty of bite.
Director Rob James has only one goal in mind with this latest production at Stage 62 – to entertain. He’s gone into overdrive, along with choreographer Ashley Harmon and music director Matt Thomas, to make sure every second you spend at Putnam County is professionally conceived and solidly executed.
And by God if he doesn’t achieve it. He’s cast the show with actors outfitted with great voices who are equipped to find the fun in Harmon’s movements. But what I really appreciated with this production was the emphasis placed on the exploration of the characters. Putnam County is, by design, written very broadly. It would be simple to camp up the role of these goofy kids with their quirky problems, but that never happens with this production.
Seth Laidlaw and Devon McCune, playing Barfée and Olive, inhabit every inch of these characters with no hint of condescension and never once comment, through mugging performances, on their eccentricities. Laidlaw gets laughs by locating Barfée’s humor directly in the character’s lived life and not as an actor-milking schtick. The palpable need McCune brings to Olive can put a lump in your throat.
As Chip and Leaf, respectively, Tyler Brignone and Shane Putorek get a lot of the show’s biggest laughs and land them with almost no visible effort. It’s humor born from the complexity of the characters, not calculated gags. Nicole Sharkey Welsh and Jess Whittington, playing Logainne and Marcy, have the most difficult roles because they haven’t been as fleshed out by the writers. Still, both are a hoot to watch and bring great power to their fun numbers.
Chris Martin gets his own laughs as the harried vice principal and when Becky Toth and Chad Elder, as the other two adult characters, join with McCune on the “I Love You Song” – the best number in the show – and the three unfurl their glorious voices, it’s goosebumps from start to finish.
The road to success may have been torturous but whatever path Putnam County took to arrive at Stage 62 was more than worth it.