Any show titled The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee telegraphs that it will be sweet, nerdy, awkward and self-conscious, sometimes all at once. And the Pollard Theatre Company production of this musical by William Finn (music/lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book) is all of those plus poignant at moments and engaging, if mildly so. This isn’t the first production of Spelling Bee in the Oklahoma City area, and it’s somewhat surprising to report that the show holds up to repeat viewing. The spelling bee takes place in a school gym (scenic design is by James A. Hughes), where it’s sponsored by the Putnam optometrists (slogan: “You have to see us to believe us”). The spellers are various types reflecting the vicissitudes of contemporary life. Adult actors play the adolescent contestants, and this conceit works remarkably well.
The director, Shawn Churchman, has assembled a fine cast and puts them to good use. Doug Ford plays William Barfee (“It’s pronounced bar-fay!”), a science geek and speller with his special “Magic Foot” technique. Ford’s tetchiness masks a certain vulnerability in the boy.
The polar opposite of William is Leaf Coneybear, the home-schooled issue of hippie parents. Played by the highly appealing Jared Blount, cape-wearing Leaf is the kind of free spirit who can fall down while he’s sitting on a bench. He placed third in his local bee, but he’s in the county championship because his two superiors had to go to a bat mitzvah.
The show’s poignancy comes in the character of Olive Ostrovsky (Michelle Owens), whose best friend is the dictionary. Her mother has fled to an ashram in
India, and her father is too busy working to attend the spelling bee. Olive and her parents unite only in the girl’s imagination in “The I Love You Song.” This scene should be required viewing for everyone with children.
The lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Megan Montgomery) admits she’s “overcomplicated.” Her surname is an amalgamation of those of her two fathers, lint-picking helicopter parents in the extreme (played by Blount and Michael Turrentine).
Finn’s score ranges from jaunty to pleasant. One lad sees a girl he likes in the audience and is bumped from the bee in “My Unfortunate Erection/Distraction (Chip’s Lament)” (Ben Rodriguez in a Boy Scout uniform).
The best lines are when the official pronouncer, Panch (Harold Mortimer), uses the words in a sentence, a convention of spelling bees: “Billy, put down that phylactery; we’re Episcopalian.” “Sally’s mother told her it was her cystitis that made her special.”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Through Sept. 13
The Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie