Why can nostalgia be so syrupy and overwrought in one artistic outing, then so crisply heartfelt and perfectly calibrated in another?
I’ve always admired William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s gregarious offering, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” for the nuanced way it shades its sentimental underpinnings. The musical never feels too cloying or mushy, but it also doesn’t come across as overly arch or arrogant. Adult actors play schoolchildren, which could easily turn saccharine or cheesy; yet underneath the silliness (and adult humor) there’s a genuine sense of reflection and even sadness.
Add to that Finn’s gorgeous score, which swells with laughs and emotion, and this brilliant work merges childhood and adulthood in an unforgettable way.
StageWorks Fresno offers a loving and inspired production anchored by a strong cast. Director Joel Abels knows exactly how to make this show work.
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For first-timers – and I envy you, because there’s so much to discover and experience the first time around – the show’s premise is simple: As an audience member, you’re there to watch a spelling bee. Six young spellers are on hand to compete. Then, in one of those exhilarating creative strokes that help make this show so fresh and lively, four more spellers are called up from the audience. (If you want to be a guest speller, arrive an hour before curtain to put your name in the running.)
There are three “adults” in the show, too: Rona Peretti (Amalie Larsen, brimming with a bouncy warmth), the moderator; Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Nick Haas, a master of comic timing), who reads the words and definitions; and Mitch Mahoney (a sweet-voiced Will Bishop), who is doing his community service and acts as “comfort counselor,” dispatching each failed speller with a juice box and a hearty “goodbye.”
Because of the four audience spellers, each performance of the show is a little different. “Spelling Bee” is an improviser’s delight. On opening night, one of the guest spellers was Danielle Shapazian, who works at the Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater box office. When introducing her, Larsen quipped, “Miss Shapazian is in good company with these players.” It’s worth it to be a guest speller just to find out what your “description” will be.
As the show merrily rolls along, we get to know more about each character through music and flashbacks. Each gets a chance to shine. Daniel Rodriguez, who plays the bee’s defending champion, Chip Tolentino, scores with a big, showy solo about teen hormones. Maria Monreal has a deftly performed fun number, “I Speak Six Languages,” as the overachieving Marcy Parks. Miguel Gastelum, as the bee’s oddball, a sinus-challenged William Barfee, gives a slathering good performance, connecting with his character’s belligerence and loneliness. Christy Hathaway, as the beleaguered Logainne Schwartzandgrubierre, finds her emotional groove in “Woe Is Me.”
I was especially taken with two performances. Taylor Abels, as the sweet and trembly Olive Ostrovsky, is terrific. For me, her high point in the show is the look in her eyes when Rona, stepping in as her mother in a fantasy sequence, first sings the line “I love you.” It’s hard to describe exactly what happens on Abels’ face at that moment: It’s as if we see a small but sturdy glow start somewhere deep within and then radiate outward.
And the biggest revelation in the show: Erik Olson as Leaf Coneybear, the youngest contestant. I’ve watched Olson grow up on stage, and I was transfixed not only by his spacey, childlike effervescence as Leaf but also his quick transition to his crisp secondary adult role as one of Logan’s gay dads. He has a lot of great roles ahead of him.
Dan Aldape’s lighting design and Caitlin Stahl’s choreography add to the show’s flair.
My only quibble with the production – and it probably isn’t entirely fair – is this: I miss live music with a StageWorks show. (And, yes, I’m not sure how you’d even fit a band into the Bonner Auditorium.) Part of it is the recorded track, which seemed dominated by a mushy organizer-synthesizer sound. And part of it is the loss of spontaneity that only comes with live music, which is particularly important in a show such as this.
Still, it’s a fine production of a wonderful title. For the first time in many viewings, I appreciated how important the character of Rona is in the show. She is the nostalgic glue that binds the whole thing together, the link between childhood and adulthood. The show isn’t cheap sentimentality but rather a successful exploration of the way we all gain emotional sustenance by drifting every now and again into the murky mists of memory.
“At the 25th annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, we grew up undeniably,” the cast sings. I think the audience does a little, too.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
- Through Sept. 18.
- Fresno Art Museum Bonner Auditorium, 2233 N. First St.
- www.stageworksfresno.com, 559-289-6622
- $25, $22 students and seniors