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Theater Review: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Keegan Theatre
Plenty of winners in this charming production
Keegan Theatre puts on the hilarious "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" through July 3.
The combination of Jesus, Anthony Weiner, and the word “acouchi” might sound like the beginning of an SNL skit, but all three actually make an appearance in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, currently showing at the Keegan Theatre (well, Weiner doesn’t so much make an appearance as end up as a punchline). Some of the jokes in the endearingly offbeat musical, which last came to Washington’s National Theatre in 2007, have been updated, but the premise remains the same: A group of hilariously earnest, stereotypically kooky middle-school spellers are competing for fame, glory, and a $200 grand prize, navigating the perils of competition and Germanic word origins along the way.
Keegan might be a small company on a shoestring budget, but you’d never know it from Spelling Bee’s performers, who seem to be having an absolutely awesome time on the island of misfit spellers. Big musical numbers such as “My Friend, the Dictionary” and “My Unfortunate Erection” call for deadpan expressions but also allow the cast to showcase their mostly impressive voices. As the kindly but ambitious Peretti, McManus, who appeared last year in Signature Theatre’s production of Chess, is one of the strongest performers vocally. The rest of the cast demonstrate an obvious flair for comedy, particularly Dan Sonntag as the chubby, habitually mispronounced William Barfée.
Spelling Bee includes a selection of audience members in the first group of spellers, which allows McManus to throw in biographical tidbits such as, “Elaine used to be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s maid,” and, “Diane is still bitter about losing the Harry Potter look-alike contest.” The inclusion of non-actors is a tricky point: It makes for some convenient jokes, but it also distracts from the song-and-dance numbers when a few people are sitting around awkwardly. Ultimately Van Why has the best one-liners as the troubled Panch, when he offers exemplifying sentences such as, “Sally’s mother told her it was her cystitis that made her special,” and “Guido the seasick Italian sailor said, ‘Excuse me boys, I’m a gonna go apoop.’ ”
Keegan’s tiny theater on Church Street makes for an extremely realistic gymnasium, decked out with bleachers and ironic signs celebrating “The 25th Annual Putnam County Speling Bee.” A special mention should go to Madeline Botteri, who’s winningly heartfelt in the role of neglected teen Olive Ostrovsky, and Chip Tolentino, who segues effortlessly between the roles of hormone-ridden boy scout Chip Tolentino and Jesus. RaMond Thomas provides both comedy and pathos as “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney, whose community service has sent him to the auditorium but whose empathy provides some of the show’s insight on the universal tragedy of failure. It might be the taking part that counts, but this show is a winner in its own way.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is at the Keegan Theatre through July 3; tickets ($35 to $40) available at Keegan’s Web site.Subscribe to Washingtonian
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