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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — Princeton Festival

18161559-mmmain“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a delicate piece.

On one level it always works because of William Finn’s irrepressibly upbeat score and the goofy characters conceived by Rebecca Feldman and given life in the book by Rachel Sheinkin.

Eccentric appeal keeps “Putnam County” amiable enough as driven children on the various cusps of teenage anxiety compete fiercely against each other, and equally compulsive adults, each with something to prove add their overcharged or fragile egos into the mix. Finn and Sheinkin have created a show that has all of the elements of being fun but that can fall flat on its pimply face if all remains simply cute.

Finn and Sheinkin also run the risk of having their plot and characters wear thin as one-joke wonders you get, digest, and tire of rapidly. The composer and writer put substance in their script, but it’s rarely mined. Most directors are content to let “Putnam Country” fly on its surface silliness, and most directors usually make Finn and Sheinkin’s show a bore.

Not Melissa Firlit. Directing and choreographing “The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee,” she kept freak flags flying and spirits high, but she also delved into her characters who they’re more than people with funny names who dress funny too.

Firlit and her cast at the Princeton Festival maintain the writers’ exuberance while finding the part of several characters that compels them to be part of the “bee” and to succeed in it so ardently.

Firlit doesn’t slacken, darken, or suddenly turn Finn and Sheinkin’s merry flapdoodle into serious piece that explores teenage angst and adults compensating for inadequacies. She uses Finn and Sheinkin’s material wisely and directs her talented group of mostly young actors to reveal all that makes their characters tick.

Charity Farrell, who plays the neglected but assuredly independent Olive Ostrovsky, shows a child’s sensitivity and a filial love for her absentee parents that earns Olive sympathy but keeps her from being a sad or pitiable character.

Farrell finds several levels of reality in Olive. She conveys her bashfulness by standing rigidly straight, palms out, with her arms held close to her body and her elbows poking her upper ribs. Her posture and demeanor let you know right away that Olive has not been trained to be sociable but has a disarming way about her that makes her someone for whom you can root.

Farrell’s Olive comes off as by far the most normal of the children even though she has the most difficult life, not because her parents are evil or abusive but because her father is always busy working and her mother is spending nine months at an ashram in India. While other children knew the “bee” involved a fee and had their parents pay it, Olive , before competing, is greeting with a reprimand that her $25 remains in arrears. While the other children have been accompanied by the parents, Olive comes to “bee” unchaperoned on a bus.

Firlit doesn’t let these details weigh down her production or make it in any way lugubrious, but she and Farrell weave the realities of Olive’s life into the Princeton Festival staging so they register and comment and show Olive to be braver, more resilient, and in some ways, more naïve about the general ways of the world than her typical childlike demeanor or relatively conventional look compared to the other children would indicate on sight.

The point Firlit lets the best and most of the intentionally eccentric ways of “Putnam County” flourish while finding ways to give its story a core and its characters some texture. No one in the cast is cookie-cutter. Farrell is the best of a good group that preserves Finn and Sheinkin’s madcap tone but keeps it from being cloying, obnoxious, or self-conscious. I have to admit that until I saw Firlit’s production, I was not a fan — Not a fan? I was an all-out detractor! –of “Putnam County,” which I invariably found to be overly precious, exacerbated in its strangeness by directors giving in to its screwball nature instead of looking for some substance underneath, and, after a few minutes, downright boring.

Firlit and company saved the day and “Putnam County’s” reputation, Having somehow missed its 2005 Broadway run with Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Dan Fogler, which may or may not have had the soupçon of depth that makes the difference between amiable and affecting, I don’t know whether that original production had the human touches I always find so absent.

Firlit did more than provide those touches. She made them moving. The children on her stage aren’t merely little balls of compulsion. You see what compels them. The adults are not just mildly neurotic joke figures. They each have to get beyond some past instance of glory or disgrace. All of this appears on the Princeton Festival stage without mitigating the basic jauntiness of Finn and Sheinkin’s piece.

Finn and Sheinkin endow their characters with a full complement of quirks. Olive may merely be shy and unskilled at being around other people. William Barfée is fat, clumsy, awkward and fixated on the one thing he can do to justify the blind and brusque self-confidence that removes him from his faults and deficiencies, his ability to spell. Barfée, who like TV’s Hyacinth Bucket constantly reminds people of the accent aigu in his name that makes is Bar-FAY, instead of BAR-fee, a distinction to which William is particularly sensitive because he was disqualified from a previous “bee” for vomiting. Barfée also has a choreographically useful trick of tracing the letters of a word with his right foot before spelling it aloud.

Leaf Coneybear, who arrives in an overly worn T-shirt under a superhero’s cape and Roman centurion’s helmet, with a sharp ridged Mohawk down the middle, goes into a trance in which he divines correct spellings but is primarily a sweet goofy kid who wants to win the “bee” to stop his overachieving siblings from deriding him for being the “dumbest” of a talented lot. Chip Tolentino wants to be the perfect young man and wears his Boy Scout uniform everywhere. Logainne Schwartzandgrubinniere bears the last names of both her gay fathers, who are perfections who cannot conceive of and won’t tolerate their activist Lesbian daughter, in her Urban Outfitter ugliness, hairdo and all, being less than the best at anything. Marcy Park is a girl who is practically devoid of personality but, like a whiz, stands stolidly in her Catholic school uniform and spells.

NealBoxAmong the adults, Rona Lisa Perretti is former “bee” winner who carries her 20-year past victory as beacon that launched her flawless life as a power woman who is a parody of the kind of person who takes charge of everything and gets upset, at least in her mind, at anything that disturbs order and peace. Panch is a vice principal who has anger management issues that manifest themselves rarely but are explosive enough to hinder his career, which is why with all of his seniority, he remains a vice principal. Mitch is a recently released convict who is volunteering as a bodyguard and security figure at the “bee” as part of his community service.

What’s great about Firlit’s production is how well each actor goes beyond or exaggerate his or her character’s type for moments of dramatic effect that accumulate into texture.

Patrick James is marvelous as Panch. You can hardly tell he’s acting, his authoritative yet hesitant actions being blended so naturally.

James lets you see Panch is not exactly thrilled the one the Putnam County superintendent chose to officiate with Rona at this year’s contest. He shows benign signs of boredom and exasperation with the children’s habits and rituals before spelling as well as Rona’s manicured officiousness.

James reminds one of the late Gale Gordon who sneaked slow burns and delivered snide retorts as the frequent foil for Lucille Ball and Eve Arden in television’s early years. His sarcasm is subtle but lands squarely. His management of the “bee” is principal-like. His relationship with the children is both ironic and no-nonsense, as someone who works in a school’s would be. James’s Panch is also a mensch who provides one of “Putnam County’s” most touching moments, one that is timed and poised to have maximum effect in Firlit’s production.

Emily Schexnaydre is a classic fussbudget as Rona, who costumer Marie Mller has dressed in the perfect ensemble that can pass for a suit or, sans jacket, a day dress and has a design that is smart and colorful whether the jacket in on or not. As “Putman County” opens, Schexnaydre’s Rona is straightening papers on the judge’s table and making sure all in the high school gym housing the “bee” is as meticulous, precise, and well put-together as she is.

Schexnaydre shows you the vinegar beneath Rona’s sweetness and the emotional mess Rona can’t quite conquer beneath her poised, polished demeanor. Schnexnaydre’s is smart work that gives Putnam County’s “bee” the air of dire seriousness that makes the importance everyone gives the contest funny.

Jamie Green finds ways to make Leaf Coneybear’s cape, trances, and new age style winning. Green, with his broad smile and his outstanding dance talent comes off a kid who delights in his fantasy world because he enjoys the game of it. Yes, the superhero accoutrements serve as a shield from Leaf’s siblings’ taunting, but they’re also an expression of his imagination and creativity. He sees the real world. He prefers his.

Green brings liveliness and warmth to the production and seems to have fun playing his loopy persona.

One caution that perhaps catches the one flaw in Firlit’s production. The actor who plays Leaf in “Putnam County” commonly doubles are the most anally competitive of Logainne’s fathers. He comes up with a scheme to sabotage another competitor, Barfée, and get him eliminated from the “bee.” Since Green played the father, it looked in Princeton as if an already-disqualified Leaf was conspiring with Logainne to hurt William. If you don’t know Sheinkin’s script, you may wonder where happy-go-lucky Leaf found this vicious streak. Green and Amanda Berry play the scene well, but there is a cause of confusion that should be corrected. Perhaps giving Green a necktie or plunking a mustache on him would differentiate the characters more. I was taken aback, and I was aware Green was playing Logainne’s father and not Leaf in that sequence.

Like Patrick James, Amanda Berry looks as if she stepped off the street as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere. Red hair combed flat across the skull and kept back with a basic hairpin in the end, dull clothes that looked like they came from a strictly politically correct boutique, and activist exuding from every pore and expression, Berry embodied a young activist who had something to say, usually reactive, to any situation she sees as oppressing and offending mankind.

Berry sallies forth boldly while shrewdly conveying the almost crushing pressure her demanding fathers put her through as they insist on excellence and victory in every effort. She also aces the interesting moment when it seems Logainne, just entering puberty, is attracted to someone, and it seems though raised to be Lesbian and living that role, she may fancy a boy.

Jonathan Zeng’s Chip Tolentino definitely fancies a girl, so much that she distracts him and keeps the trusty, brave, clean, and reverent Boy Scout, merit badge sash and all from concentrating on spelling a tricky word that ironically, or not so ironically in a comedy, has the sound “tit” at its core. The girl in Coneybear’s sister and the arrowlike Chip can’t help but hope that when she meets him, she’ll both like him and be nothing like her goofy brother.

Ryan Corridoni dances his words beautifully as William and makes his big number, “Magic Foot,” a rousing success.

Corridoni brings all of Barfée’s excessive traits to the fore. He is unapologetically big and bullying. He is a definite nerd, who may not be as spacy as Leaf or as intense as Logainne, but who asserts himself more, using his size, nerve, and spelling talent be his arrogant calling card. Except for the magic foot dance, Corrodoni doesn’t attempt to make William soft or endearing. He is always the kid who crows about what great he is and how he’s going to trounce any competitor who dares to think they can outspell him at the “bee.”

Jerrial Young trucks on stage with intimidation when he as the bored parolee, Mitch, has a escort someone off stage when he or she has misspelled a word. He is no-nonsense is officer-like demeanor and can put an arm around someone who needs some comfort. Young is equally good as a pair of fathers, the calmer of Logainne’s paternal duo and the doting, if disorganized and preoccupied guardian to Olive.

Nicole Acevedo neatly conveys the rigidity and single-minded purpose in Marcy.

Set designer Christopher Heilman gets you immediately in the mood for the “bee” by dressing the Matthews Acting Studio, where “Putnam County” appears, in a gym that seems well-kept and meticulously cleaned. The air seems clear and competitive without a musty feel or the scents of perspiration, exertion, or strong cleaning fluid lingering. Heilman really sets the tone by fringing the stage with a semi-circle of handsome banners that hang from the rafters and extol the frequent success of Putnam County sports teams. Heilman is particularly clever in having two banners celebrating 2012. This double entry piques your curiosity and makes you wonder at the duplication. Upon inspection you see each banner represents a different sport. A smart and witty touch!

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs through Sunday, June 28, produced by the Princeton Festival in the Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street, in Princeton, N.J. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range between $45 and $35 and can be obtained by calling 800-258-ARTS (800-258-2787) or by visiting www.princetonfestival.org.

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