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Skipping the spelling bee for adulthood?

If you could live your life over again, wouldn’t you want to skip that whole high school part and go right into early adulthood?

The joys and angst of adolescence is the theme of the final show at Ford’s Theater.  “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a rowdy and frequently hilarious musical that uses the yearly spell-a-thon to explore the particular rough puberty these kids are going through, simmering just underneath the surface and ready to pop up at the most inconvenient times.

Think of it as a reality show like “Survivor,” where contestants are booted off the island for misspelling words. 

Overseeing these events are two adult moderators that seem at times to be stuck in adolescence themselves.  The teenage spellers range from totally out of it to automatons determined to win at any costs.  None of these kids feel like they were class president or prom queen, so it is the outcasts and loners that we all knew in high school that get to shine in this spotlight.

The book by Rachel Sheinkin is ingenious.  If a spelling bee sounds dull, wait until you hear some of the definitions for the words they come up with, and how they are used in a sentence.  The little introductions for the student spellers are a hoot but as the show progresses, the words that the kids have to spell start to take on ominous personal meanings.

The spellers are a great assortment of childhood misfits, and everyone will have a favorite.  Mine is Leaf Coneybear, played by Nickolas Vaughan as a likeable ne’er-do-well who spells words as if he is receiving transmissions from outer space. 

But there is Felicia Curry as Marcy, a student determined to be perfect at all costs, and Vishal Vaidya as William, an asthmatic student that spells words with his feet.  You have to see it to understand it.  Meanwhile, Carolyn Agan and Kristen Garaffo are good as two female students facing very different family issues, while Vincent Kempski is a boy scout whose partiality to the ladies gets him into big trouble.

All the actors do a good job and the songs/lyrics by William Finn give everyone a moment to shine.  In all the “Pandemonium” of the spelling bee, do not overlook the so called adults in the room.  Matthew Anderson plays Vice Principal Patch as a smarmy administrator while Rachel Zampelli as Rona seems the most mature person in the room except her mask keeps slipping.  Then there is Kevin McAllister playing Mitch, serving his parole as the most unlikely “comfort counsellor” you can imagine.

And do not worry if someone misspells a word and is escorted off the stage.  These actors tend to pop up later in the show as parental units, visions from India, and one strange supernatural appearance. 

Well directed by Peter Flynn, with a simple but ever evolving set by Court Watson.  They add little touches to the production to remind you that you are in Ford’s Theater, and the script is slightly toned down to be more PG-13.

The show is about 100 minutes without an intermission.  The first hour is such a gonzo production that it is a shame that the final half hour, which touches more serious themes, drags a little.  But we get to the final moments of the bee to see who the winner is, and then we get an “Animal House” style epilogue where we learn what happens to all these characters later in life.  This little spelling bee turns out to be very important for some of the characters on stage, and a true delight for those in the audience.

Special note: no one in the audience is forced to go on the stage by the actors.  But before the show you can sign up to be on stage as one of the spellers, and up to four lucky audience members will be selected to join the cast members and show off their spelling prowess.  If you do make it onto the stage, just be prepared to go with the flow, because they will treat you no differently from the other spellers.

 “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” continues at Ford’s Theater through May 17.  For more information call 202-347-4833 or go online to http://www.fordstheatre.org/.

3 stars

By David Cannon

Mocovox Entertainment Critic

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