Spelling-bound

URI’s makes Putnam County worth visiting
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  December 8, 2009

THEATER_Spelling09_main 
STOP IN THE NAME OF SPELLING? The Putnam County kids.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a harmless enough little confection for, say, when you've had enough high-protein Shakespeare. The music and lyrics are by William Finn, who did Falsettos, and the book is by Rachel Sheinkin, on her first Broadway outing. It's silly and immature, but it won't give you acne.

That said, the talented troupe in the production at University of Rhode Island Theater (through December 13), under the direction of Paula McGlasson, seem to have rediscovered every funny bit and present them to us like a Whitman's Sampler. There is even a five-piece band for us to munch to.

The one-act musical began as a piece titled C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, conceived by Rebecca Feldman and developed by a New York improv comedy company, the Farm. It arrived on Broadway in 2005 and promptly earned six Tony nominations.

It's set in the gym of the Putnam Valley Middle School, where a half-dozen finalists are competing to represent their state in the national spelling bee. Similar to one of those 1940s war movies, where the squad is composed of an Irish kid from Boston, a Jew from Brooklyn, and so on, this cast of characters is psychologically rather than demographically diverse, with a self-flagellating perfectionist, an air-headed good-guesser, and so on.

As we learned in A Chorus Line, we enjoy the proceedings in direct proportion to how well we get to know the characters. The main flaw with this musical comedy (besides the lackluster songs) is that we don't learn enough about these kids early enough to care enough. Once we do, we get more invested in the comedy and can appreciate even the lamer joking around.

But we eventually do get to know them, and some mix-and-match relationships develop. Leaf Coneybear (JonPaul Rainville) is hippie-bred, home-schooled and childish beyond his years, wearing a cape like a kindergarten kid. But he is good-natured and good-looking, which burbles the hormonal cauldrons of two of the other adolescents. With a mother at an ashram in India and a father who hasn't found the time to show up yet, Olive Ostrovsky (Micah Tougas) is pretty needy, so she develops a crush on him. Another overachiever, Chip Tolentino (Andrew Burnap), wearing a sash full of scout merit badges, is so distracted fantasizing about Leaf's sister that at one point he doesn't notice it's his turn to go to the microphone. (He has to waddle over there somewhat bent over, if you catch the drift.)

Quirks are always endearing. William Barfee (Benjamin M.S. Grills) can't spell without first writing the word on the floor with his "Magic Foot." (The company joins him in a kick-line production number on one occasion.) Extremism in the pursuit of a spelling bee championship is no vice. So plaid-skirted Marcy Park (Autumn Gillette), from Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows, speaks six languages, sleeps only three hours a night, and would love nothing better than to get permission to lose. The least psychologically damaged seems to be spunky Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Betsy Rinaldi), raised by two gay men and the youngest of the lot.

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