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Theatre Review: 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' at Ford's Theatre

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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By Kyle Osborne

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The past couple weeks have been filled with sad and disappointing news on TV and online—it makes one wish for a quick “getaway.” Some way to spend an evening, perhaps, laughing and smiling and enjoying oneself. If only there was a way….

Ah, here’s something: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Ford’s Theatre! The Tony Award-winning musical is the best antidote to the down-in-the-dumps headlines of the day.

Set in a school auditorium, the play follows a half dozen young contestants as they vie for top honors. They’re all smart across the board, yet they each have vulnerabilities that can be, at turns, hilarious and touching. As they contest goes on, they take turns in the spotlight, giving us a glimpse into their personal lives, usually by singing a song.

The adults in the room are Rona Lisa Perretti (Rachel Zampelli) who is the lady in charge—judge and jury and a former contestant herself. She’s joined at the table by the clueless but amiable Vice Principal Douglas Patch (Matthew Anderson) who gets the most laugh lines of the evening, sometimes at his own expense, but most often as the one who’s charged with using the word in a sentence to the contestants. Mitch Mahoney (Kevin McAllister) plays someone who’s been convicted of…something, and is working at the school as part of his community service. At first, McAllister’s portrayal is all broad stereotypes, but Washington theatre-goers will know that he has one of the most beautiful and powerful singing voices in town, and when we finally get to see more of what he does best, it’s been worth the wait. Zampelli also has a pristine voice that she doesn’t get to use in every role, so for those of us who know her mostly as a brilliant actress, it’s a treat to hear her sing, as well.

There isn’t enough space to run down all six contestants, but they each shine and make the most of their characters’ moment in the spotlight. If you could only mention one, it would have to be Vishal Vaidya as the uber-nerd and spelling virtuoso, William Barfee. It’s the showiest role, for sure, allowing the actor to display comedic chops, movement and singing. Carolyn Agan was great, too. But that’s two, not one. Well, okay: the exuberant Nickolas Vaughan plays Leaf Coneybearell with a sweetness that infectious. But that's three, not one.

The play has a gimmick, of sorts, that probably ranges from amazing to, well, gimmicky, depending on the performance: a few members of the audience are selected before curtain to sit in as fellow “contestants” in the Bee. They’re given laughably easy words to spell at first, then impossibly difficult ones later on. On this evening, an audience member was so good a speller the she surprised herself and, apparently, had the show slightly behind schedule by the time she finally misspelled her word and was sent packing.

Although the musical isn’t the least bit corny, there is a kind of wholesomeness to it—as if the viewer really is in a school auditorium in an All-American town. It’s refreshingly un-cynical. Okay, you know what it is? It’s delightful. And, boy, do we need more delightful things to see and hear right about now.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through May 17, 2014 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, N.W., Washington, DC. For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.fords.org

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