The lightweight Tony Award-winning musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” gets yet another showing in Rhode Island, this time opening Theatre-By-The-Sea’s 78th season.
We found the show somewhat amusing the first time around, followed by an awful amateur performance, so we were not excited about seeing it again. What a difference a good cast and good direction (Aimee Turner) makes.
TBTS’s version is filled with energy, and while some of it is a bit over the top, the cast manages to make the most of their characters and milk the slim plot for all it is worth.
The tongue-in-cheek recreation of a local spelling bee has some funny moments, most provided by Michael Gregory Johnson as the Vice Principal who “had been away for a while” and serves as the official who asks the questions, gives definitions and eventually loses his cool. This guy is just plain funny.
The six overachieving contestants all have their back stories, which come out mostly in song and somewhat in their presentations. The songs are on the silly side and, except for one, not at all memorable.
When a contestant loses, he or she is given a juice box and a hug by the “comfort counselor,” a young man doing his community service as part of his parole. The contestants also have their own techniques in spelling out the words, from writing them on their arms to spelling them out with their feet.
Steve Gagliastro steals the show as William Barfee, whose name the VP constantly mispronounces with hilarious results.
Part of the fun of the musical is the selection of four audience members (ahead of time so they can be quickly coached), who sit on the bleachers with the actors, participate in the bee and are slowly eliminated.
The success of the gimmick depends on those selected, and at the Saturday matinee great selections were made. There is a curve thrown, as one of the contestants is given a very difficult word and aces it. The actors do a good job of looking surprised and being caught off guard. A friend who saw the show the following day saw the same routine.
After much silliness the contest comes down to the two finalists. It is here that we get a bit serious and bring out the obvious message about winning not being everything in life.
There is an opportunity for the actors to add some local references, and they are funny. So if you want a light, funny, over-the-top evening and haven’t seen the show before, it is worth a trip to Matunuck.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is at Theatre-by-the-Sea through June 19. Call 782-8587 for reservations. Tickets range from $29-$54.