The 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is an affable little musical ostensibly about the precocious children who compete in spelling competitions. Underneath its cute façade, the musical embraces the joy—and pain of growing up. Bees used to be niche events, not unlike chess, until they both became media darlings. Hollywood was quick to cash in on the craze with films like Akeelah and the Bee (with Lawrence Fishburne) and Bee Season (with Richard Gere). The national bee even attracts picketers from organizations who advocate spelling the way words sound not the way our ancestors dictated. No less an advocate than Teddy Roosevelt championed the cause for spelling reform. (Congress overruled him.)
The Lyric Stage Company’s whimsical version (playing through Oct. 2nd) features Kerri Jill Garbis as the terminally cheerful hostess (a former winner herself), assisted by the hilarious Will McGarrahan as the sour vice principal (evidently born without a sense of humor). In a show crowded with smart children (actually actors portraying children) a spoilsport like the vice principal is welcome relief, especially when he’s torturing the volunteers from the audience with very difficult words. (The audience amateurs on my night were savvy competitors.)
All the contestants have their moments to shine but it’s Krista Buccellato as the unaccompanied speller without the entry fee who transcends the material and breaks your heart (in a production which doesn’t go for the jugular). Director Stephen Terrell stresses the cheeky, good natured disposition of the piece over the pathos—so. if you want to be in touch with your rambunctious inner child—and maybe even strut that inner child as one of the audience spellers, then PUTNAM COUNTY is your oyster.