If you head into The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Village Theatre not totally sure what to expect, you’re probably not alone. Sure, you can probably guess that there’s a spelling bee involved, but there’s no way to anticipate just how entertaining 100 minutes of uninterrupted spelling-bee-based material can be. Nothing aside from actually seeing the production can really capture the heart, wit, and magic you’ll see unfold on the stage as six unusual adolescents compete for a spot in the National Spelling Bee.
All the best qualities of the musical’s script and soundtrack are particularly emphasized in Village Theatre’s essentially flawless rendition of the show.
Regular supporters of the Eastside theater will recognize much of the cast of adult actors (who believably lose decades by turning in their toes and tugging on their pigtails): Sarah Russell (The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes, Dreamgirls) plays the beyond-stressed-out Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, whose two dads’ high expectations push her to breaking point; Taylor Niemeyer (Newsies, Xanadu) is the shy and brilliant Olive Ostrovsky, who waits anxiously throughout the bee for her dad to appear in the seat she saved him; Rafael Molina (Hart Island, Into the Woods) hilariously pulls off the childish and ridiculous Leaf Coneybear, cape-clad and self-conscious that he’s not smart enough to be a good speller.
The sharp and capable cast of characters — six kids, two moderators, and a “comfort counselor” who gives losers a juice box and a hug as a part of his community service duties — are joined onstage by four audience members. These “spellers,” selected in the half hour before the show begins, are asked to come up to the microphone and spell increasingly difficult words until they each are eliminated and handed a juice box. The layer of comedy added to an already-witty show here is fabulous: Seemingly improvised comments about contestants as they approach the microphone, as well as the words they are given to spell (from “cow” to “lysergic acid diethylamide”), had us laughing out loud — sometimes in near tears — for the better part of the show.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, however, is more than a comical romp through a cutthroat county-level spelling bee. Amidst the flashy dance numbers and the larger-than-life characters, the show manages to find moments of seriousness and intensity that are equally surprising and satisfying. Village Theatre’s cast did not disappoint in delivering any of these moments — profound or absurd.
The show runs at Village Theatre Issaquah through Sept. 20, and Oct. 25 to Nov. 17 at Village Theatre Everett.