There’s nothing more satisfying for a reviewer than to critique a show where you can’t find a solitary flaw.
Enter “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” stage left.
The basic plot of the musical comedy running through June 21 at Buck Creek Playhouse is outlined in the title — Putnam County’s best spellers are pitted against one another in a fierce winner-takes-all contest. Losers walk away with a juice box and fear of disappointing their parents.
Guiding the audience through the action (The thrill of victory! The sting of disappointment!) are Elizabeth Orr and Bryan Padgett, portraying bee moderators Rona Lisa Peretti, a nostalgic former bee champ, and Douglas Panch, a school vice principal who is prone to mildly inappropriate outbursts.
Orr, a Hancock County resident, has hit her stride playing another character whose motivation as event coordinator lies in reliving her glory days as a past winner. For those who saw Orr in Footlite Musicals’ “Hairspray” as Velma Von Tussel, this performance might look familiar; but Orr strikes just the right balance of snark and sweetness as the slightly overbearing yet ever-so-well-meaning Rona.
Padgett is delightfully deadpan while delivering some of the show’s funniest lines, most of them in response to spellers’ requests for their words to be used in a sentence. A personal favorite? Jihad, exemplified thus: “Billie, quick! Duck behind this western wall. I think I see a Jihad coming.”
The cast of spellers is small but packs some big personality. Show-stealer Stacia Hulen is Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, whose headgear and accompanying lisp are just the start of the comedy. Jessica Bartley is the no-nonsense Marcy Park (who insists despite her down-turned face she isn’t all business). Hancock County native Scott Fleshood is Chip Tolentino, the (in so many ways) overexcited Boy Scout. Steven Linville is disgruntled know-it-all William Barfee. Tyler Mootz is the charmingly dense Leaf Coneybear. Miranda Nehrig rounds out the cast as Olivia Ostrovsky, the timid girl just hoping to make a friend if she can’t come in first.
Onis Dean portrays Mitch Mahoney, the parolee whose community service involves handing out juice boxes and giving consolatory hugs to the losers.
There isn’t a weak link among the cast members, most of whom are on stage for the entire production and whose quirks (the boy who spells with his foot; the speller who sports a helmet and cape) add color to each scene without distracting from the contestant at the microphone.
The exaggerated drama of the competition keeps the audience in stitches, but the show also sneaks in touching moments that add just a little depth to the storyline.
Nehrig, Orr and Dean’s trio, “The ‘I love you’ Song,” — one speller’s yearning for her absent parents’ affection — is one such moment that is so heartrendingly beautiful it takes you a moment to get back on board with the levity of the show when the lights come back up.
The shows runs just an hour and a half with no intermission. There are also no dramatic set or costume changes, but the show moves so quickly, you won’t miss them, especially with some amusing audience participation. And even if your mind were tempted to wander, Fleshood’s hilarious post-bee-elimination solo involves chucking candy into the audience, so you won’t drift away for long.
Despite the fast pace, it should be noted the cast members never miss a note; their harmony is perfectly intact even as playful choreography has them hopping off risers and performing other antics that leave the audience wondering how they keep up the intensity.
Director (and choreographer) D. Scott Robinson should consider “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” a real feather in his cap. Don’t miss it.