Spellchecking some musical theater

For those of us West Coasters who were never given the opportunity to participate in—or even see—a good old-fashioned spelling bee, Portland Center Stage is providing the opportunity now.

For those of us West Coasters who were never given the opportunity to participate in—or even see—a good old-fashioned spelling bee, Portland Center Stage is providing the opportunity now.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a fictional (and musical) spelling contest directed by Rose Riordan, is actually good. It’s even funny. This may not be the most enticing way to pass two hours of your time, but it’s surprisingly satisfying. If you’ve been meaning to take your grandmother on a date, then this is the event for you.

Originally a book, Spelling Bee was adapted to the stage and later granted the addition of song and dance routines. At PCS, an orchestra provides Spelling Bee‘s backing music.

Six contestants in the very beginnings of their adolescence have qualified for the Putnam County Spelling Bee. Some are overachievers, pressured by their parents to succeed on their terms, some are teased for being stupid and are surprised they made it this far. All of them are strange.

Annoyingly, each of the child characters fits neatly into a well-packaged and easily explained stereotype. Normally considered an egregious and lazy approach to script writing, this flaw is forgivable because of how cute and entertaining the characters become—thanks entirely to the actors and their director.

A standout example is Connor Bond as Leaf Coneybear, a dim-witted boy in a poncho-turned-monster-costume (à la Max of Where The Wild Things Are), who has been homeschooled with his seven brothers and sisters. He sings a song titled “I’m Not Smart.” His is a flat, contrived “dumb hippy” character who we’ve met many times in film and on stage but (unsurprisingly) never in real life.

This is an irritating character. 

Bond, however, embraces Leaf Coneybear and breathes a lot of lovable life into the role. Clearly a talented actor (and vocalist), Bond had won over every member of the audience by the halfway point of the production.

The script’s clever utilization of its bad stereotypes is also noteworthy. Leaf Coneybear, for example, is always asked to spell the names of South American rodents.

The defending champion, Chip Tolentino (Raymond J. Lee), is a four-eyed Asian who uses his fanny pack to cover an inappropriately timed erection. Even Mitch Mahoney (Gavin Gregory), the ex-con-turned-“Comfort Counselor” who gives hugs and juice boxes to losing spellers, gets to sing his musical numbers as Motown throwbacks and wear a pair of hideously awesome red leather boots.

There are absolutely fabulous performances from Isaac Lamb (as William Barfee) and Darius Pierce (as Vice Principal Douglas Panch). Lamb is wonderful as an awkward, oversized boy who has a “magic foot” and some serious tics, and he stole the show with a musical number, bringing his character to a whole new level. Pierce was hilariously deadpan, entrusted to speak the play’s best lines and, in the end, not one of them could have been better delivered.

Spelling Bee‘s greatest asset may be its strange and intriguing inclusion of the audience. There was the somewhat standard “breaking the fourth wall” approach (in which cast members directly address the audience, and even move through the auditorium as part of the audience), but there were also audience volunteers.

Anyone who arrived 30 minutes prior to show time could submit their name for a volunteer drawing. The four selected would be given a brief orientation and then called to stage during the show. Though their inclusion was over by the 40-minute mark, the audience members’ interactions with the cast and their participation in the spelling bee were some of its highlights.

The songs are a little long, but not too cheesy—atypical for musical theater. Overall, it is an impressive production. Costume designer Jeff Cone deserves serious props for perfectly dressing his 30-something actors as 10-year-olds.