For those of us whose middle school memories harken to a time of anxieties, crushing insecurities and the dread of not fitting in, have I got a musical for you.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will remind you that you have plenty of characters in the challenging world of teenage angst. Dorks, dweebs, do-gooders and overachievers will be your new BFFs in this uproarious production featuring the oddball world of spelling bee competitions. (Note to parents of aspiring qualifiers: the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee is held right here in Washington, DC.)
That the characters in this musical are decidedly unique doesn’t get in the way of composer William Finn and conceptual creator Rebecca Feldman tapping into universal neuroses. We really do feel their pain, squirming and agonizing over obscure words like capybara or hasenpfeffer. Can you use that in a sentence?
The twist is that four actual audience members are brought on stage to join the “bee.” Opening night had beautiful, blonde local theatre reviewer, Jeanne Theismann, who when introduced by Vice Principal Panch, was skewered with an intro as “the cheerleader who hopes to marry the quarterback. ” It was a reference to her ex-husband, former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. She played along good-heartedly until her elimination when Panch declared, “All the 7th-grade boys are in love with this brunette!” Gales of laughter from the in-on-the-joke audience.
Along with the six quirky students and their super-cool, jive-talking professional “comfort counselor,” Mitch Mahoney (Carl Williams), they share the stage with Vice Principal Douglas Paunch (Jeff Davis) and Secretary Rona Lisa Peretti (Amy Conley).
You’ll meet Chip (Eric Hughes), whose budding adolescent crush will dredge up all the awkwardness of early testosterone unpredictability and Logianne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Emily “E. J.” Jonas), a goofy pig-tailed Catholic School conformist who boasts a pair of bossy dads. Her fail-safe technique: pre-spell words on her arm.
And then there’s the pretty and terminally insecure Olive Ostrovsky (Maureen Rohn), whose abandonment by her ashram-trotting mother and distant father bonds her with a dictionary. Olive talks into her hand to puzzle out the words while the haplessly cute Leaf Coneybear (Josh Goldman) has eleventh-hour visions carry him to success. Leaf is home-schooled and makes his own capes. Are you reading a Charles Shultzian presence yet?
For the multilingual Marcy Park (Claire O’Brien) rocking her cheerleader outfit, it’s all beneath her. The hyper-accomplished, classical piano playing, baton-twirler informs us, “I’m sick and tired of being the best!”
And you’ll want to meet the adorably gawky William Barfee (Matt Williams), “It’s pronounced Bar-fey, ”he corrects, employing the Gallic accent. He’s the personification of teenage bluff and bluster and a shoo-in representative for the Lollipop Guild. But his peanut allergies seem to get the best of him until he’s given the word “antihistamine.”
“Luck of the draw,” he stammers before acing it.
Crack cast members nail their characters’ kooky personas to the letter, and the entire hyper-talented bunch sings their faces off through 13 riotous numbers. Watch for ingénue Maureen Rohn who tears the roof off with the heart-breaking “The I Love You Song”.
Producer Mary Beth Smith-Toomey, Director Frank D. Shutts II, and Music Director Christopher Tomasino can add another notch to The Little Theatre’s long-standing mega-repertoire of successes!
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through February 4 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St. For tickets and information call 703-683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.