Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
University of New Mexico
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Rob's reviews of The Diary of Anne Frank and The Country House


The Cast
Photo by Pat Berrett
There's a theater adage I heard somewhere that says that more musicals are ruined by their books than by their music. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, on the other hand, is an example of the book saving the musical.

The story was thought up by Rebecca Feldman and a group called The Farm. It was adapted by Rachel Sheinkin with music and lyrics by William Finn. Sheinkin won the 2005 Tony for Best Book. Finn deservedly did not win for Best Score. The songs are mediocre at best. (My favorite, "Magic Foot," is not going to be on anybody's cabaret set list.) But no matter: The script (plus some improvisation) makes this show, not the songs.

Spelling Bee is so darn charming that it's no wonder it has been a hit with regional and community theaters (it's even been translated into Korean). Six high school kids plus four brave audience members compete in the spelling bee. The audience members are fairly quickly eliminated (sometimes not so easily), leaving the kids to deal not just with obscure words but with typical teen tribulations: insecurities, family pressure to succeed (or fail), distant parents, spur of the moment crushes, and ill-timed erections. There are one or two moments of pathos, but for the most part it's laugh-out-loud hilarious.

All of the kids, and the three adults running the bee, get their own numbers, so it's the epitome of an ensemble show. Kathleen Clawson has assembled a crackerjack cast of UNM students and directed them with zing. The 95 intermission-less minutes whiz by. I love the little touches Kathleen and the cast have come up with, like the yellow ball that the "Comfort Counselor" squeezes, the way William Barfée puts his hands on his knees, and making an audience member actually pay a dollar for candy during the "refreshment break."

It would be unfair to single out any performers from the group. Suffice it to say that they all are terrific: (in alphabetical order) William Dole, Gino Gonzalez, Gigi Guajardo, Haley Henson, Cris Iannucci, Josh Jones, Dustin C. Lopez, Andrew H. Melendez, and Juliana Myers. I hope they're having as much fun performing as we have watching them.

The set design by Inseung Park is fantastic. It alone is worth the price of admission. Costumes by Kevin Thornburg are fine, lighting by Shawn Nielson is excellent, and sound design by Chad Scheer is, as usual, superior. The orchestra directed by Paul J. Roth does a wonderful job, and never overwhelms the performers.

If you've never seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee before, and even if you have, I encourage you to come out and support the UNM theatre program. They only do a musical every other year, and it would be a shame to miss this talented group of students.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, directed by Kathleen Clawson, is being performed at the Rodey Theater in the University of New Mexico Center for the Arts, on Central Avenue in Albuquerque. Through May 1, 2016. Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2:00. Tickets are $12 to $20, available at UNM ticket outlets. Info at theatre.unm.edu or www.unmtickets.com.


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