It’s a little hard to separate the audience from the cast members at Cabaret Oldtown’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” – and that’s a very good thing.
The small size of the theater works to its advantage with this particular Broadway musical because it enhances the intimacy of some of sweet and poignant moments, putting us up close and personal with the eager but not always sure of themselves young hopefuls.
We in the audience also are easily swept up in becoming part of the cheering section as words are being spelled correctly at an escalating pace.
Director Christi Moore promotes that interactive excitement level rather than letting us stay passive or neutral. We quickly become invested in a bunch of quirky kids we come to know and love over the course of the evening.
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There’s Leaf (played by longtime local comic favorite Kyle Vespestad), a perpetually sunny, laid-back child of hippies who makes his own clothes, including a superhero cape he wears to the bee. Nobody does spastic, puppy-eyed goofy better than Vespestad, who also choreographed. His solo about unexpectedly being thrust into the bee, “I’m Not That Smart,” is both hilarious and poignant.
There’s uniform-wearing, severely coiffed, parochial school overachiever Marcy (Elise Blann, a recent theater grad from Emporia State), who speaks six languages and has a Jesus moment – literally – during the bee that gives her a new outlook on living up to expectations vs. rebellion.
There’s last year’s winner Chip (Dylan Lewis, veteran of numerous Cabaret and Crown Uptown shows over the past couple of years), an athlete and a Boy Scout for whom everything seems to come too easily – including sexual awakening at awkward moments.
And there’s whip-smart, politically aware Logan (Ashley Lauren, recently in Crown’s “Hairspray” and “Spring Awakening”), who is being driven to distraction by her two overbearing dads. She’s the youngest competitor but the most outspoken, although her “Woe Is Me” song shows she’s hiding behind a facade.
But the most compelling kids in the bee are shy, reclusive Olive (Megan Parsley, who won a Mary Jane Teall acting award for this role when she did it previously in 2011) and nerdy, asthmatic, bespectacled William Barfee (Scott Thomas, also recently in Crown’s “Hairspray” and “Spring Awakening”), who can’t seem to get anyone to pronounce his surname correctly: Bar-FAY, folks, not Barfy.
Parsley has a haunting fragility but a powerful voice as Olive, who becomes best friends with her dictionary because her well-meaning parents don’t have enough time for her. And Thomas makes eccentricity an entertaining virtue as he dances out words with his character’s “magic foot” before spelling them out loud.
Local longtime favorite Angela Geer is Rona Lisa Peretti, a former spelling champion as a kid who is now the proud moderator for nine years running. Geer’s powerhouse voice gives a sweet and mellow turn to “My Favorite Moment of the Bee,” which turns out to be almost every moment.
Denny Grilliot is Vice President Douglas Panch acting as the bee pronouncer, and he is deadpan hilarious with his word definitions (real) and usage in a sentence (ridiculous). And John Bates is pony-tailed, sleeveless Mitch, a surprisingly sensitive ex-criminal working off his community service as Official Comfort Counselor for spellers as they mess up and leave the stage. His appearance is always accompanied by the amusingly overly dramatic “The Goodbye Song.”
The show, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, is a simple, straight-forward charmer and a crowd-pleaser. But opening night had some problems when the four-member combo – particularly percussion – played a bit too loudly, most noticeably at the beginning of the second act. That made it hard to catch Finn’s clever lyrics for at least two songs. It’s almost like the enthusiasm of the show inadvertently pumped a little too much adrenalin into the drummer.