Encore Michigan

‘Putnam County Spelling Bee’ sizzles and soars at The Encore Musical Theatre Company

Review October 21, 2023 David Kiley

DEXTER, MI–You wouldn’t think a musical about kids in a spelling bee would be controversial. But at a time when religious, conservative right-wing Governors and school boards are busy banning books rather than assault weapons that have our kids having to do mass-shooting drills, anything is possible.

This production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is presented in partnership with The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, with roles filled mostly with theatre majors. These actors are the cream of their peers studying at one of the most competitive theatre programs in the country. And they rock this production.

Had I paid $150 on Broadway or Off Broadway to see this cast, I would have considered it money well spent. It is truly Broadway stage worthy.

Spelling Bee’s creators are:  Music and lyrics by William Finn with book written by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman with additional material by Jay Reiss. The show centers on a fictional spelling bee set in a geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley Middle School. Six quirky adolescents compete in the Bee, run by three equally quirky grown-ups.

The play opened 18 years ago in New York City, and since then it has been a frequently produced play at colleges, high schools and community theaters.

The story has been so popular because the writing and music are superior. Against the backdrop of a spelling bee, we get poignant stories about kids feeling pressure to achieve by parents, the angst felt by kids of parents too busy to show up at their events, the struggle to get and feel approval, the struggles of self esteem as adolescents and more.

Lately, though, in some municipalities and states, “conservatives” have objected to the fact that one of character’s parents is two gay men. They have also objected to the depiction of Jesus in the play. There is a brief scene in which a contestant starts her line with “Jesus!!,” and so Jesus appears on a hydraulic lift from the audience, rises, and has a conversation with the character.

Earlier this year, the Cardinal Ohio School board decided that the high school would not proceed with the musical because some on the board deemed it “vulgar” and not “family friendly.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The play deals with subjects appropriate to adolescents, including their emerging hormones and sexuality, gay parenting and the pressure of meeting parental expectations. Yes, there is a song in which character Chip Tolentino (Brendan Dallaire) sings about his “Unfortunate Erection.” If your middle-schooler doesn’t know what an erection is, the school and his or her parents have utterly failed the child, not the writers of this show.

The Cardinal School Board reversed its decision after being pilloried by the community, and after Music Theatre International, the publishing company for the play, agreed to some changes in the script for the production that tuned it from a PG-13 rating to G-rating.

Indeed, changes in the script work both ways. In this production, one of the characters, Schwartzy (Stephanie Reuning-Scherer, riffs on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s habit of calling for bans on books and history curricula that he and his right-wing followers don’t subscribe to, despite the material being factual and long approved by actual experts in pedagogy.

The writers and rights holders to the musical determined that if they were going to make allowances to producers who wanted some of the liberality in the play tamed, they would also allow producers to augment the liberality with some revisions to let the actors express their viewpoints.

One of the traditionally charming aspects of Putnam is to have a few audience members drafted to take part in the spelling bee on stage. In order to not prolong this portion, the audience members are given easy words to spell at first, like the words “Ohio” and “Atheist” (wink wink), and then they get very difficult words in the second round, which normally ends their stage time.

It is difficult to single out individual players for excellence here because they all are incredibly talented. And it is very much an ensemble show. In all the productions of this show, the casting of William Barfee, a delightfully dorky kid with a big talent for spelling with the aid of his “magic foot,” is key. And Ian Coursey is superb. Mr. Coursey counts among his credits being in the first national tour of Daer Evan Hanson. These young artists on Encore’s stage are supremely talented.

This wonderful production is directed by UM faculty member Vincent J. Cardinal. The set, a school hall in which the Bee is taking place, is designed by Sarah Tanner. Tyler Driskell is Music Director. Rosella Human designed costumes to make these college students appear as fifth and sixth graders. Nikki Belenski is lighting designer. Chris Goosman is sound designer with Jessica Glynn as sound engineer. Ashley Blanchet is choreographer.

Putnam plays through October 29. For show and ticet information, go to Encore Musical Theatre’s website. Hurry. It’s just two weekends, and tickts are in hot demand.

Week of 7/15/2024

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