Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.



As with so many theaters of southeast and mid-Michigan, the Encore Musical Theatre Company is like a temple of ingenuity, with homemade aisles and risers and essentially no wings (on one side of the stage is an actual brick wall). The company's mission is to bring Broadway talent to its stage to work with local professionals, yet this small space has an intimacy an actual Broadway stage could never reach. For a group that produces only musicals, which traditionally feature huge casts and splashy production elements, this introduces myriad opportunities and challenges, both of which are well met by The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

However long, this is one literal title: behold, the silver anniversary of a county spelling bee (the winner of which qualifies for the national championship in Washington, DC). Aside from a few flashback/fantasies and one literal deus ex machina, the play's uninterrupted nearly two hours are confined to a school gymnasium until the winner is declared. However, with credit to librettist/composer William Finn and writer Rachel Sheinkin, the clearly laid-out structure of the competition is wisely broken up by dances, songs, rants, prayers, slow motion, a juice break, and even a little flirting; the show bounces and bops without straying too far from the story, and the time flies.

The documentary Spellbound and cable network coverage of the national bee has introduced images of kids' unusual spelling tactics and occasional dead-away faints into pop-culture consciousness, and provides an amusingly cutthroat point of reference that may explain this group of unusual youngsters. The low-rent high stakes of a kids' spelling competition supply a perfect kind of energy for an engaging musical. Moreover, the hilarious ensemble cast carefully treads the line between buoyant exuberance and trying too hard — musically, the actors hold up to scrutiny, but the characterizations and comic timing are what make this show excel. Everyone in this universe is a little off, including the adult moderators (Colleen E. Meyer and Tobin Hissong) and the court-mandated "comfort counselor" (Chris Shewchenko), he of the tremendously somber send-offs. But the characters of the kids are given the most room to play, and these actors take full advantage, from the repulsive/engrossing idiosyncrasies of haughty William (Jeffrey James Binney) to the superior deadpan of unassailable whiz kid Marcy (Christine Bunuan).

Direction by Daniel Cooney and Molly Taggart and choreography by Barbara F. Cullen make the most of the small stage, elevating the almost nonstop movement beyond merely navigating nine bodies around a set of risers. (On top of this, the players shepherd around four audience volunteers who are brought onstage as contestants; the spellers direct and coach them with ease, so that all four appeared rather comfortable and happy.) The deceptively simple set by Toni Auletti provided much-needed extra exits and a few unforeseen entrances as well. Colleen E. Meyer's costume design had me at "cape made of ties." Lighting design by Daniel Fowler was certainly suited for the show's frenetic energy, although the constant liveliness was not easily distinguished from cues that indicated actual breaks from the action (flashbacks, etc.), requiring me to play catch-up a few times until I caught on. Sound, also by Fowler, included an excellent offstage band of three (conducted by CT Hollis) and nicely selective use of the onstage microphone, which enhanced a few of the jokes.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee may not be a classic or have sing-along–type numbers, but it's basically impossible to sing, anyway, while one is laughing. Parents may not find it an appropriate show for their kids because of somewhat rare use of expletives and a pretty frank song about puberty in boys, but the young audience members on opening night suggested otherwise, so it may be a matter of preference. Audiences of all spelling abilities should find enjoyment in the carefully honed performances that elevate this show into not only a fine musical, but an outstanding comedy.


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