REVIEW: Theater Latté Da finds the charming heart of a musical that gently celebrates a competition in which striving outsiders get their day in the sun.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" can be something of a hothouse flower -- a fragile beauty that wilts in the wrong environment. In 2006, fresh off its Broadway triumph, the quirky little musical visited the State Theatre in Minneapolis on national tour. Any charm or heat generated by the six young nerds competing on stage quickly evaporated in the big room.
Theater Latté Da has reclaimed the wit of this musical, written by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin, in the intimate McKnight Theatre at the Ordway Center. The production, directed and choreographed by Peter Rothstein and Michael Matthew Ferrell, reveals the endearing vulnerabilities of teenagers whose mettle is tested under the hot glare of competition. We dare not laugh at Schwarty's lisp, or Olive's mousy self-image, because they want to win so badly and how can you laugh at kids doing their level best?
This does not mean the six competitors and the three adults who proctor the bee are not funny. But this humor resists the hollow amusement of vaudevillian pretense and touches the heart. Rothstein and Ferrell keep the production within the reality of a high school gymnasium, designed meticulously by Rick Polonek.
Is there a plot? Have you seen a spelling bee? 'Nuff said.
Rothstein and his actors sharpen their characters with a nice assist from Rich Hamson's spot-on costumes.
Tod Petersen never gives off the sense he's acting as vice principal Douglas Panch. From his severe flattop haircut to his white socks, Petersen is the ridiculous embodiment of a man who has no idea how much a geek he really is.
Douglas' counterpart is Rona Lisa Peretti, the Anoka County Realtor and former bee champion who hosts the competition. With her hair spun into a bun and her face framed by oversized glasses, actor Kim Kivens nails this tightly wound bundle of contradictions.
And what of the kids? Cat Brindisi has the nicest voice and a heartbreaking shyness as Olive, who frets because her parents are absent. Mary Fox's Schwartzy is the strongest character, fighting through her lisp and the fluttering expectations of her two dads.
Sheena Janson's Marcy glowers with the burden of being an overachiever; Derek Prestly has the perfect gawky frame for boy scout Chip Tolentino, whose teen hormones doom his quest but there is something just slightly off-putting about Joseph R. Pyfferoen's William Barfee -- who naturally is a bit overbearing.
And where did Latté Da find Brian Frutiger? He plays three adult roles with pitch-perfect distinction and a voice that rings with operatic strength.
So, enjoy the hothouse flower. It's blooming good.