The “Bee” is back and charming as ever thanks to Dare to Defy Productions.
Composer William Finn, librettist Rachel Sheinkin and conceiver Rebecca Feldman’s entertaining and tuneful 2005 Tony Award-winning musical comedy “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has been a popular, ensemble-driven choice for many area theaters over the years. After all, the witty material’s clever brew of zaniness, eccentricity and tenderness is innately appealing in a kooky fashion. So, it’s no surprise Dare to Defy is the latest troupe to provide their own take, a firm, fast-paced, excellently character-conscious outing ranking among its finest presentations.
Formulated from Feldman’s improvisational play “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E” originally performed by the New York-based improvisational troupe The Farm, “Spelling Bee” chronicles the promise, skepticism, joys, and woes of six children (played by adults) attempting victory at the spirited competition spearheaded by Rona Lisa Perretti (Sherri Sutter) and Vice Principal Panch (Brad Bishop) with assistance from “Comfort Counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Jamal Caan). The eager finalists are Leaf Coneybear (Brett Norgaard), returning champ Charlito “Chip” Tolentino (Brent Hoggatt), Logainne Schwartzandgrunenierre (Tori Kocher), Marcy Park (Abby Land), Olive Ostrovsky (Laura Falb), and William Barfée (Brennan Paulin). All can be considered oddballs, but they’re nonetheless bonded by a deep admiration for words. We may not understand why they’re so enamored with language, but they create relatable connections in other areas including fears of not being good enough, the temptation of overachieving, and the anxiety of familial strife in a broken home. In these moments, we see ourselves in their angst thereby rooting for them to the fullest.
Casting is paramount in order for this show to have the perfect tone to suit an assortment of extremely specific characters. Thankfully, Dare to Defy assembles a winningly cohesive ensemble under the direction of Matthew Smith, a memorable Barfée (pronounced Bar-FAY) in the Dayton Playhouse’s 2011 production seamlessly balancing pandemonium with softer, sensitive touches. Dare to Defy newcomer Falb, a standout last season as Wendla in Beavercreek Community Theatre’s “Spring Awakening,” is very sweet and endearing as the introverted Olive. The wonderfully goofy and warmly openhearted Norgaard delivers one of his best performances as the loveably insecure Leaf. Kocher, a reliable comedienne, is sharply grounded in Logainne’s confidence and fortitude as a fiery, outspoken go-getter. The effectively perturbed Paulin is a hoot and avoids overplaying William’s unique “magic foot” spelling method. Striking vocalists Hoggatt and Land, recently seen as lovebirds Japeth and Yonah in Dare to Defy’s outstanding “Children of Eden,” are terrific as the ultimately bewildered Chip and reserved overachiever Marcy. Land’s rendition of “I Speak Six Languages” complete with athletic showmanship is particularly impressive. Sutter, a beautiful soprano, is enjoyably chipper and nurturing as host/former spelling bee champ Perretti, particularly joining Caan (in one of his strongest portrayals) for a splendid rendition of the gorgeously haunting and soulful duet “The I Love You Song.” The delightfully droll Bishop has an easy rapport with Sutter and relishes the interplay he shares with audience members invited to join the fun with the cast. Musical director Charles Larkowski’s commendable orchestra and choreographer Jessica Eggleston’s energetic choreography are additional assets.
By and large, this “Spelling Bee” is a very nice beginning to all the theatrical experiences awaiting us in 2017.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” continues through Jan. 14 in the Renaissance Auditorium of the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. The production is performed in 100 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $15-$30. For tickets, call the Dayton Art Institute at (937) 223-4278 or visit daytonartinstitute.org. The production is not recommended for anyone younger than 13. For additional information, call (937) 999-9949 or visit d2defy.com