The audience wins at Theater Barn's 'Spelling Bee'

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NEW LEBANON, N.Y. — That thunderous noise you may have been hearing lately from the direction of Lebanon Valley isn't emanating only from the cars kicking up dust at the speedway. It's the steady, hearty laughter shaking the walls and roof of The Theater Barn, which is ending the summer portion of its 2018 season with a thoroughly captivating production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," a musical by William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book) — the same duo responsible for the misguided "The Royal Family of Broadway," earlier this summer at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield.

"Spelling Bee" also originated at Barrington Stage — in 2004 in the company's second stage at its home at Mount Everett Regional School— in a thoroughly beguiling production that caught a lot of us unaware.

At once smart, stylish, compassionate and with the good sense not to overplay its hand, "Spelling Bee" went on to enjoy great success in New York, first Off-Broadway, then on, where it won a 2005 Tony Award for best book of a musical and best performance by an actor in a featured role in a musical (Dan Fogler for his performance as William Barfee, a role he created in BSC's original production in Sheffield). But in the process, "Spelling Bee" took on a glossy sheen; that Broadway polish that turned an unassuming, unpretentious, witty musical into something just a bit more glitzy.

Well, it's lost that Broadway/national tour sheen at The Theater Barn, all for the better, in an exquisitely performed production that catches the unassuming, unpretentious temperament and style that made this musical so appealing in the first place.

"Spelling Bee" is set in a high school gym where the very best school spellers in Putnam County, N.Y. are competing for a $200 bond that will be applied to the winner's college education.

There are six in the running and, just to keep things honest, four audience volunteers are selected before the show begins to join the merriment on stage.

It's an eccentric crew of contestants that includes Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (a wonderfully sincere and honest Liz Erardi), who is being raised by a gay couple whose sense of decency and fair play lags far behind their daughter's; Leaf Coneybear, who seems to exist in an ether all is own (an absolutely adorable Xavier McKnight, who doubles as one of Logainne's parents); Marcy Park (perfectly played by Christy Yin), a prodigy who is perfection in everything she does (which she catalogs in her song "I Speak Six Languages"); Chip Tolentino (nicely played by Patrick Scholl), a perfectly obnoxious, self-centered Boy Scout and spelling bee champ who has a bit of a problem with his testosterone; Olive Ostrovsky (a touching, poignant Alexa Renee). She understands the dynamics of words; of letters and the myriad ways in which they relate to other letters. She is Barfee's intellectual equal. She is surrounded by kids with overachieving parents. By contrast, her parents seem indifferent. Her mother is at an ashram in India. Her father, who promised he would be in the audience at the bee and bring with him her $25 entry fee, has yet to show up. She is on her own — disconsolate, insecure and, despite the fact they have found a kinship, a bond, the one clear threat to Barfee.

The one to beat is the least likely looking — the supremely confident William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fait, if you please), played to absolute perfection by Paul Urriola. Overweight; his black hair reaching out like an abandoned crow's nest; his eyeglasses held together by tape, he is the walking definition of super-bright nerd. One nostril is blocked so his breathing is somewhat impaired. He also is violently allergic to peanuts, which proved his undoing in the 24th annual Putnam County spelling bee. Now, he is back with a vengeance.

Each contestant has an idiosyncratic device for finding their way to the correct spelling before actually sounding it out for the spelling master— the school vice-principal, Douglas Panch (played by Travis C. Brown with a smooth blend of composure, authority, roiling resentment and devastating vulnerability), who is making a comeback after an "incident" at the 20th spelling bee that has kept him in exile. Barfee's technique involves spelling the word out with his right foot before articulating it for the judge; a method that gets its due in one of the show's few "big" production numbers, "Magic Foot."

Hosting the bee is Putnam County's No. 1 Realtor, Rona Lisa Peretti, played by Alexandra Folety with poise and self-assurance.

Levi Squire's comfort counselor, Mitch Mahoney, is an ex-con trying to make amends by handing the losers their juice box as a consolation prize as he escorts them out of the gym.

Marc de la Concha has directed "Spelling Bee; with a keen understanding of its tone and temperament. he lets the musical's characters shine in all their strengths and vulnerabilities without patronizing them. His uniformly irresistible, expert ensemble responds accordingly. De La Concha's choreography is as stylish and witty as Sheinkin's book and Finn's lyrics. Finn's music is handled with seeming ease by music director Ollie Townsend and his four-member pit band.

In the end, the biggest winner here is the audience, hands down.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or jborak@berkshireeagle.com


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