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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.

☆☆☆ ½  stars out of four

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.

As this month’s Scripps National Spelling Bee proved, nothing serves as a microcosm of the agonies of adolescence better than a spelling contest; they’re a mecca for every over-achieving, maladjusted middle schooler ever to wear a retainer or join the chess club. Putnam County’s selection of spellers is no different, from the cape-wearing Leaf Coneybear (Michael Innocenti) to the lisp-prone Logainne Schwartandgrubenniere (Shayna Blass), whose two dads are a model of pushy parenting, to Marcy Park (Tina Ghandchilar), who speaks six languages and only sleeps three hours a night. Moderating the contest are local realtor Rona Lisa Peretti (Katie McManus), a former spelling champion herself, and Vice-Principal Douglas Panch (Dan Van Why), who was obliged to take a hiatus from the contest following an unspecified incident five years ago but is now fully recovered (and apparently heavily medicated).

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.
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