25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Musical
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Editorial Review

A ‘Spelling Bee’ contender, despite some tedious tunes

By Nelson Pressley
Friday, June 10, 2011

You’re an anxious kid at a spelling bee. Your word is “fandango.” You ask the judge to use it in a sentence.

The judge quite soberly replies, “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?”

That kind of blissfully absurd comic exchange is why audiences have been smitten with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the 2005 off-Broadway (and then Broadway) musical about awkward kids under competitive pressure. Rachel Sheinkin’s scenes unleash dozens of these gleaming gags, and as the modest new Keegan Theatre production proves, they’re utterly dependable.

This Keegan show at the Church Street Theater is a reminder, though, that William Finn’s songs for “Putnam” are as wan as Sheinkin’s book is winsome. Writing interesting music for geeky kid characters bursting with everything from shame to aggression may be a tall order, but the plucky lyrics and strained, thin, yearning little melodies aren’t nearly as revealing or joyful as the book’s crisp jokes.

It’s easy, then, for “Putnam” to end up feeling like an almost annoyingly chirpy campus revue, which is what happens with parts of Christina A. Coakley’s production. The sure-voiced performers brim with cheery determination as they soldier through songs with such plaintive titles as “My Friend, the Dictionary,” “Woe Is Me” and “I’m Not That Smart,” rubbing noses on sleeves and fidgeting on the bleachers of George Lucas’s simple school gym set.

The Keegan troupe has proved that it can create quality sound in its Church Street musicals, yet when these songs get loud or busy, the singers lose contact with the skeletal orchestra above and behind the stage. The singer-actors are appealing, with fetching impressions made by Madeline Botteri as the gentle but abandoned Olive Ostrovsky, Michael Innocenti as the daffy Leaf Coneybear, Dan Sonntag as the breathing-challenged William Barfee, Katie McManus as the adult who still dwells in her glory days as a past champion — it’s a balanced, capable cast. Still, musically — where it needs the most help — the show barely gets by.

So hooray for the comedy! “Putnam” makes splendid use of a few preselected audience members as contestants; you can spot them on the bleachers cracking up at the show unfolding around them. Like the rest of the losers, they get escorted off the stage with a hug and a juice box and a chorus of “Goodbye” when they blow a word. The delightful, inventive script even gets fleeting topical updates, which means a little more bad news for Anthony Weiner.

But only a little, for “Putnam” really is a warmhearted show, a teddy bear of a musical. The Keegan Theatre wouldn’t seem to be testing its mettle much by choosing this, and it’s largely a sweet evening, yet the production is no slam dunk. Even gentle shows need to be strong.

Music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin. Directed by Christina A. Coakley. Music director, Elisa Rosman; choreographer, Melissa Douglass Bustamente; lights, Hannah Dubrow; costumes, Shadia Hafiz. With Christopher Mueller, Shayna Blass, Tina Ghandchilar, Dan Van Why and RaMond Thomas. About 1 hour 45 minutes.