THEATER REVIEW: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” @ The Theater Barn [Berkshire on Stage]
Review by Gail M. Burns
I have seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee several times since the icy day in February, 2004 when I slithered down to Barrington Stage Company to see a workshop, and it has never failed to charm me. In the interim it has been produced widely, won a couple of Tonys, and made bona fide stars out of some of the young actors I saw that February day.
The premise is simple. Six middle schoolers, ages about 11-13, are gathered to compete in a spelling bee at the county level because they have each won the bee at their school. The winner will go on to the state competition, and the winner there will go to the national spelling bee in Washington, DC. So while these kids have achieved something, it is several steps away from being a great big something, and, as we all know, being a good speller is not the route to adolescent popularity.
So these kids are different in an awkward way from the start. William Barfee (Paul Urriola) – it’s pronounced Barfay – is the adenoidal nerd who is too tall, too chubby, too smart and too annoying to be anything but an outcast. The youngest contestant at age 9 is Logainne Scwartzandgrubenniere (Liz Eradi), who internalizes an intense pressure to succeed inflicted on her by her two dads. Marcy Park (Christy Yin) is tired of being the best at everything. The dreamy Leaf Coneybear (Xavier McKnight), who comes from a large, freewheeling family, only got to the county bee because the winner and first runner-up from his school had to attend a Bat Mitzvah. Chip Tolentino (Patrick Scholl) is last year’s county winner and one of the older spellers in the competition, which leads to his ultimate downfall. And Olive Ostrovsky (Alexa Renee) arrives late, without her registration fee, and desperately hopes that her father will arrive in time to see her compete (her mother is on a spiritual quest at an ashram in India.)