Theater & Dance
Published Date Written by Alec KerrCONWAY — The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company's 42nd season continues with the light and funny "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which opened at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway Aug. 7 and is running through Aug. 18.
"Spelling Bee" is a one-act musical comedy conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss. It predates "High School Musical" by a year, but is similar in tone and themes, but is, you know, good. The show centers on six quirky adolescents participating in a spelling bee overseen by three eccentric adults.
William Barfee (Joshua Levin) is the ultimate nerd with a special technique of spelling with his foot, Olive Ostorvsky (Jennifer Lauren Brown) is a sweet, word obsessed girl with parental issues, Chip Tolentino (Jake Levitt) is the previous year's winner, Marcy Park (Emilie Jensen) is an over achiever, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Jill Twiss) is the gay rights advocate daughter of two dads, and Leaf Coneybear (Alex Herrea) is a particularly weird child who goes into a trance when spelling words.
The spelling bee enthusiast Rona Lisa Peretti (Liz Wasser) runs the show with Douglas Panch (Ryan Murvin), a man with unknown personal issues, providing the words and parolee Mitch Mahoney (M. Elijah Caldwell) acting as a comfort councilor. The cast often takes on double or triple roles in flashbacks and dream sequences.
Four people are chosen out of the audience to fill out the ranks of the spellers and are actually called upon to spell. It is a cute gimmick, but one that adds needless running time to the show.
The show's songs are upbeat and fun, but it is the characterizations in "Spelling Bee" that stand out the most. While the characters aren't much more than archetypes they are given bright personalities that this talented cast bring vividly alive.
Herrera, with a talking finger, strange clothes and stranger antics, is a scene stealer. He makes Leaf a loveable kook.
Levin is very funny, nerding out in a big way on songs like "Magic Foot." He makes seemingly bland catchphrases like "Of course" and "I know!" hilarious. He also develops a sweet, tentative flirtation with Brown's Olive.
Jensen is solid as an uptight priss who shines on "I Speak Six Languages," a lively number in which she shows off her many talents ranging from karate to wine making.
Wasser nails the perky teacher-type and has an amusing comic chemistry with Murvin. Some of the shows best laughs come from the definitions and usages of words in sentences, and Murvin delivers each one perfectly. Caldwell has the smallest role, but has a dynamic stage presence that is memorable.
Director Nathaniel Shaw and choreographer Lisa Rumbauska keep the show moving at a brisk pace. One of the show's highlights is a scene that starts in high speed and then, riotiously, is performed in slow motion.
Musical director Michael Hopewell has done a fine job guiding this cast of uniformly strong vocalist. Kenneth John Verdugo provides a nice gymnasium set. Costumes by Barbara Erin Delo do a good job of making the cast look younger. Victoria Miller provides effective lighting.
The show does have one song, the generically titled "The I Love You Song," that is surprisingly heartwrenching. The song explores Olive's emotionally distant parents and her troubled home life. Brown pours a lot of hurt into her performance, building to a powerful final moment. It is the emotional highlight of the show and helps deepen an otherwise fluffy show into something with a bit more substance.
For more information or tickets call 356-5776 or visit www.mwvtheatre.org.