By Richard Ades
A confession: I was disappointed when I heard CATCO had booked The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for its new season.
That was partly because I’d rather see Columbus’s premier troupe tackle works that aren’t quite so familiar. Mostly, though, it was because I’d seen a touring production come through town several years back and hadn’t fallen in love with it.
But you know what they say about love being better the second time around? Maybe that also applies to this quirky musical. Thanks to CATCO’s personable production, I now love both it and its nerdy characters.
With a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettos), Spelling Bee is like a comedic and tuneful version of the 2002 documentary Spellbound. Like the film, it delves into the personalities of the young contestants in an attempt to explain how they became spelling whizzes and why parlaying their skills into victory is so important to them.
It could be that director Steven Anderson’s long submergence in children’s theater has served him well here, because his production’s greatest strength is its ability to turn each of the competitors into a recognizably and lovably eccentric individual.
Early laughs are won by Leaf Coneybear (Patrick Walters), whose behavior is even odder than his helmeted and caped attire. Also attracting our attention is the Korean-American Marcy Park (Nicolette Montana), who only later reveals why she seems annoyed by the whole event.
The richest portrayals are provided by Japheal Bondurant as the plus-sized William Barfee—whose haughtiness could well be both a reflection of his brilliance and a defense against an often-hostile world—and Elisabeth Zimmerman as the lonely Olive Ostrovsky. Played by Zimmerman with a deer-in-the-headlights expression and a lovely voice, Olive reveals the direness of her situation in the show’s most touching number, The I Love You Song.
Also taking part in the competition are Chip Tolentino (James Sargent), whose struggle to repeat last year’s victory is complicated by his dictatorial libido, and Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre (Emily Turner), whose gay fathers encourage her to win at any cost.
Four pre-selected audience members play additional competitors and frequently come in for witty and personalized jibes from the spelling bee’s hosts, Rona Lisa Peretti (Krista Lively-Stauffer) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Ralph E. Scott). Panch, by the way, has many of the show’s funniest lines—which usually follow the question “Can you use it in a sentence?”—and Scott delivers them with deadpan perfection.
The cherry on the show’s comical sundae is Mitch Mahoney (Geoffrey Martin), a scruffy ex-con who was sentenced to perform community service by acting as the competition’s “comfort counselor.”
Michael S. Brewer’s set design captures the look of a school auditorium right down to the cinder-block walls and the “Putnam Piranhas” wall signs. A band led by Matt Clemens is a spirited presence despite being hidden backstage.
With tuneful tunes, heartfelt performances and more laugh-out-loud moments than you can shake a dictionary at, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is simply irresistible.
CATCO will present The Twentieth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee through Aug. 18 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $41 for Thursday and Sunday performances, $45 for Fridays and Saturdays, $11.50 for Wednesday matinees. Student tickets are available for $15 two hours before non-sold-out performances. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.