The contagious joy of “Putnam County Spelling Bee”

The contagious joy of “Putnam County Spelling Bee”

A friend asked me today what shows I’ve seen the most productions of; in thinking it over, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is in the top three – not because it’s performed often (although it is quite popular) but mainly because I love it so much. It’s one of those rare shows you can’t help but leave in a good mood, and sometimes some simple joy is really necessary.

It’s spelling bee time in Putnam County, and this year’s bee is being orchestrated by past bee winner Rona Lisa Perretti (Alexandria Foley) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Travis C. Brown); Mitch Mahoney (Levi Squier), the comfort counselor, is there to console the children as they exit the stage as part of his community service. Six spellers (Liz Erardi, Xavier McKnight, Alexa Renee, Patrick Scholl, Paul Urriola and Christy Yin) – and four volunteers from the audience – are in competition to represent the county in the Scripps Bee in Washington D.C., each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and neuroses – but only one can win. With a lot of humor (and a surprising amount of heart) we find out who wins the bee and how the competition changes everyone involved.

What a bright, bubbly and delightful production of the show this is. Once you’ve seen it a few times, you tend to get critical, of course (and I’ve listened to the soundtrack more times than I can count) but I can find very little to nitpick here. The music is beautiful and on-point – what gorgeous harmonies! – thanks to music director Ollie Townsend; director/choreographer Marc de la Concha keeps everything under control (when it’s supposed to be – a song such as “Pandemonium” needs a little … well, pandemonium … and he does that perfectly as well.) There’s a necessary aspect of improvisation here brought about by the audience participation, and Foley and Brown roll with it beautifully. And the audience at the Sunday matinee was, possibly, one of the most engaged audiences I’ve been a part of in ages – they were hanging on every word, note and line and the laughter and applause was continuous (and contagious.)

This cast is fabulous – what a wonderful time they must be having together. Brown’s deadpan delivery of the words, definitions and sentences is glorious; Squier’s Mahoney is my favorite I’ve seen in this role, and his work in “The I Love You Song” (always a standout, but very much so in this production) with Renee and Foley is utterly heartbreaking and gorgeous. Scholl had the audience in stitches with “Chip’s Lament”; McKnight is a winsome Leaf Coneybear and the audience was eating out of his hand (and I loved his helmet!) Urriola’s Barfee is much more likeable than usual – a character tweak I like very much.

Excellent work by everyone involved – what a fun production. Seeing that many smiles as we all left the theater did my heart good. Go do your heart some good and check out the spelling bee before it’s gone.

“The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee”; The Theater Barn, 654 State Route 20, New Lebanon; through Sept. 2; $29-$27; Run time: 1 hours and 50 minutes with a 15-minute intermission;518-794-8989;

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