“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which opened the 2016 season tonight at Cottage Theatre, wasn’t something I was sure I was entirely in the mood for as Friday evening rolled around. It all sounded too upbeat, too lightweight, too syrupy and too laugh-tracky, a TV sitcom idea transposed into live musical theater.
Well, sure, it’s all those things. But it’s also pretty much a blast, thanks to director Mark VanBeever’s quick, easy pacing and some downright cool portrayals by his excellent cast. And it has its moving moments.
The show took two Tony Awards in its 2005 Broadway incarnation, one of them — not surprisingly, now having seen it — for Best Book. This musical’s music, in fact, is mostly forgettable, with tunes and lyrics not far removed from middle of the road pop. But Rachel Sheinkin’s dialog is unexpectedly charming and entertaining as it deconstructs childhood traumas, school competitions, and even deeply felt love and loss over the course of a spelling bee held in a middle school cafetorium.
The strongest characters onstage are the six middle school contestants vying for the spelling bee trophy. All played by young adult actors, they bob and weave through the event, dodging hormones, food allergies real or imagined, broken families and just plain adolescent weirdness in an event co-hosted by Rona Lisa Perretti (Tracy Nygard), a former spelling bee champ who can’t quite let go of her memories of that long-past day, and the bizarrely inappropriate vice principal Douglas Panch, played with perfect creepiness by Ward Fairbairn.
One of the stars of this show is Brittany Dreier, who plays contestant Olive Ostrovsky, a girl who scans the audience plaintively in the forlorn hope that her father might, for once, show up. She delivers the strongest song in the show (“The I Love You Song”), in which she imagines enjoying the love of her absent parents. It’s guaranteed to put a lump in most any throat.
Donovan Seitzinger, as the smelly, introverted contestant William Barfee, pulls off a dance routine with Bob Fosse overtones that is one of the high points of the show, and Maeve Dahlen, a senior at Cottage Grove High School, is dead-on as the chronically over-achieving Marcy Park.
All this is played out to live music from a pit quartet conducted by VanBeever, with Keri Davis on keyboard, David Richards on woodwinds and Nick Alvarez on drums.
If you go, be sure to register — in the lobby before showtime — as a spelling bee contestant. Four audience members, with a modicum of pre-curtain coaching, are brought up on stage to serve as extra contestants in the bee. This is your chance to act — and even sing and dance, should you have the nerve — in a real musical, without all that work learning lines and going to rehearsals. And, if you can spell, you’ll be on stage even longer: You’ll only be eliminated when you actually misspell a word.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs through February 14. More at CottageTheatre.org.