Some of the area’s best musical theatre grown-ups become nerdy, quirky kids and their chaperones in Spelling Bee, on now at Village Theatre in Everett. It runs through November 17.
When you first glimpse the stage at Village Theatre’s production of the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — which kicked off its Everett run last weekend — it looks like a pretty unadorned scholastic gym. The colors are right, it’s oh-so-realistic, and everything is where it should be. But there’s nothing that inspires that sense of otherworldliness and magic we all want, on some level, from the theatre.
All that changes when the hidden lights fire up and leave the whole thing aglow. It’s a stage fitting for the rockstars these elementary school spellers fancy themselves to be.
Spelling Bee is a tale of childhood awkwardness, perception, and perspective, told through the device of musical theatre and the narrative arc of a small-town competition. It’s this strange combination that makes everything work, conceptually.
For better or worse, Spelling Bee isn’t one of those musicals with iconic songs that’ll be stuck in your head forever. Indeed, most don’t even stand out. Within 10 minutes after curtain I’d be hard-pressed to hum you any of the hooks, despite some memorable song titles (“My Unfortunate Erection” and “Magic Foot” come to mind).
But with its character-driven approach, it’s largely the cast that makes the show work in practice — and Village puts together a great production, studded with local favorites.
The interpretations of the kids and their unique quirks and stories (and names) give life to the show: Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Sarah Russell) with her two dads and precocious political activism; Chip Tolentino (Justin Huertas), last year’s champion, with a bratty self-importance; contrasted with Leaf Coneybear (Rafael Molina), who got in “the Bee” by luck as a distant runner-up and is convinced he’s neither smart nor qualified to be there; and Marcy Park (Arika Matoba) who’s eminently qualified in all her pursuits (grades, sports, music, and her six languages) and just wants the freedom to lose once in a while. On top of the competitive drama, tremendously awkward and unfortunately-named toe-speller William Barfee (“it’s Bar-fay”) (MJ Sieber) and the order- and love-starved Olive Ostrovsky (Taylor Niemeyer) might have a glimmer of the requisite elementary school burgeoning romance, and host/judges Rona Lisa Perretti (Jessica Skerritt) and Douglas Panch (Brian Lange) have some curiously budding tension, too. Most actors also do double-duty as minor characters.
Nicholas Japaul Bernard makes a Village Theatre debut here and is a relative newcomer to Seattle, but has already had a big impact on the area’s stages (Rock of Ages at The 5th Avenue Theatre; Sound Theatre’s multi-Gregory Award-nominated Citizen; Hedwig in ArtsWest’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch among them), and explored autobiographical themes in multi-media works (a solo show in this year’s Scratch Festival at 18th & Union; an installation in ReShape last year at the Slate). Bernard is a dazzling performer, with a voice as big as that stage presence. Here, for a while it seemed like Bernard’s talents would be wasted as an extra, stashed off in the corner: Mitch Mahoney, the “comfort counselor” who sends the Bee’s losers home with juice boxes as they exit the stage. But Mitch bursts out with Bernard’s exuberant voice on a couple big songs, and winds up being central to the show’s conscience.
Other surprises are Molina and Niemeyer, whose work wasn’t as familiar to me. The two’s characters are among the show’s most complex, and both actors excel in the roles. Leaf (Molina), unlike the other characters, has an understated view of his cerebral abilities, and his journey of confidence-building is a touching one. And Olive (Niemeyer) has used her preparation and mastery of the Bee as a stand-in for the structure and affection the rest of her life is lacking. The show’s best lyrical number may be “The I Love You Song,” when Olive — assigned to spell “chimerical” — uses the opportunity to imagine the “highly unrealistic, wildly fanciful” scene of her parents both present and doting on her.
And then there’s the matter of audience participation. Four lucky(?) audience members are announced as competitors and brought onto the stage, getting an up-close view for a sizable chunk of the show, and occasionally called upon to spell such words as “cow” and “Canadian” (definition: a resident of Canada; or, what Americans pretend to be when traveling abroad), to much more obscure and difficult ones. The former words, paling in comparison to those assigned to the other spellers, give Chip (Huertas) a chance to hem and haw about the unfairness of it all.
Spelling Bee isn’t likely to be the show you’ll remember forever and ever (unless, of course, you’re one of the surprise guest spellers). But it’s a sweet and funny show full of talent, and a good reminder from kids to grown-ups to keep all of our disappointments — and our victories — in perspective. It’s a welcome light-hearted work for a heavy world.
Music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, concept by Rebecca Feldman. Directed by Brandon Ivie, set by Julia Hayes Welch, lighting by Robert J. Aguilar; full list here.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through 11/17 at Village Theatre in downtown Everett, at the Everett Performing Arts Center. Tickets up to $75, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility note: $20 rush tickets for Section B seats available to all, 30 minutes before showtime; see details here; and take an optional shot at an official spelling bee word at the box office for upgraded seats.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.