William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's 2005 musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has always felt a little like an overly long Saturday Night Live sketch.
The overachieving students each represent a broadly drawn stereotype, the adults running the show have their own hang-ups, and there's even a song about erections. So it's up to the company producing it to find the humanity in each of the elementary school-aged freaks (their term, not mine).
Firehouse Theatre, with an impressive cast culled from in-house and around town, mostly succeeds in giving the show depth but gets a gold star in entertainment. Even if some of the students veer completely into cartoon at times, the actors are so gung-ho that you probably won't mind.
Take, for example, the character of William Barfée. The wheezing, grumbling, socially awkward adolescent has two defining characteristics: a deathly peanut allergy and a "magic foot," which helps him to spell out words. Clint Gilbert is odious as the off-putting Barfée, scrunching up his face and hunching his back to convey the boy's uncomfortable physicality. Gilbert's improv, too, is right on target, tinged with hostility while those around him are offering up encouragement or innocent commentary.
But for all his humor, Gilbert's Barfée never really relaxes into an actual person, even when he unexpectedly makes a friend. Derek Whitener also occasionally strays too far as the free spirit Leaf Coneybear, relying on his props to fill out the character.
In contrast, Leah Clark's lisping liberal and Alexandra Cassens' focused savant each find several different moments to reveal their hidden self-consciousness. Alex Heika, playing the returning spelling bee champ who's felled by pre-teen hormones, gets to work through his frustrations by chucking candy directly at the audience.
A word about you, audience: you're a big part of this show too. Not only are volunteer spellers pulled from the seats (you can sign up before the show), but your mere presence is verbally and physically acknowledged several times.
Often that's by Noelle Mason and director Ben Phillips, who are running the bee as celebrity emcee (and top local Realtor) Rona Lisa Peretti and vice principal Douglas Panch. Despite the sugar-rush antics occurring in the bleachers of Kevin Brown's set, you'd be wise to keep an eye on this pair in the corner — Mason especially delivers one memorable facial expression after another, along with the cast's best female singing voice.
Unsurprisingly the show's emotional center is the quiet Olive Ostrovsky, to whom Robin Clayton gives a tremulous fragility. The other, more surprising, emotional journey comes from Jason Phillip Solís as Mitch Mahoney, a "comfort counselor" who's fulfilling his parole hours. Solís conveys genuine concern with the disqualification of each student, as well as a showstopping voice and impeccable comic timing. You truly never know what will happen at the bee.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through January 22 at the Firehouse Theatre.