Review: Farmers Alley Theatre Reconnects With Our Inner Child in 'Putnam County Spelling Bee'
Written by Marin Heinritz. Photo courtesy of Klose2U Photography LLC


We may have a tendency to forget many of the lessons of childhood having survived them, but it’s amazing how they can come up again and again.

Things like, trust your instincts; just do your best, it’s good enough; don’t be embarrassed by your body, it’s normal; and you’re lovable just the way you are.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the delightful Tony Award-winning musical conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin currently in production at Farmers Alley Theatre (though produced at Festival Playhouse at Kalamazoo College) puts these—and more—right in front of us with humor and joy. We can’t help but laugh at ourselves while we also laugh at the adorable motley crew of characters so committed to the high stakes of their county spelling bee the audience gets sucked into the drama of their cringe-worthy moments of adolescence as if it were their own. 

And for some of them, it is. In addition to the six characters in the show participating in the spelling bee, four members of the audience are called onto the stage and legitimately compete—to unexpected and riotous effect. 

The children are quirky, lovable, impassioned, awkward—and the characters so real, we can’t help but recognize at least a little of ourselves in them. There’s Logainne Schwartzandgrubinierre (Angela Calleja), with her hysterical lisp and fierce competitive spirit egged on by her well-meaning yet overbearing gay dads; hilariously chronically ill William Barfée (Charlie Turner), constantly mispronounced as “barfie,” much to his chagrin, whose magic foot can spell out in dance just about anything; overachiever Marcy Park (Alexis Aponte) in her Catholic school girl uniform who’s rethinking the value of perfectionism; brilliant boy scout Chip Tolentino (Teddy Huff) whose earnest good performance is compromised by his raging hormones; and Olive Ostrovsky (Mariangeli Collado) with her dreamy passion for language born of neglect from her narcissistic parents that led her to find companionship in books. 

But it’s Leaf Coneybear (an unbelievably fully committed Jeff Meyer), who’s a little bit simple and teased for it by his family and nearly upstages himself with his violent finger puppet and the colorful clothes he made himself, including a dramatic cape plus a bike helmet for safety, who nearly steals the show with his hilarious antics—but when he’s called to the mic he becomes possessed by a force that allows him to spell anything.

Under excellent direction from Farmers Alley Theatre Executive Director Rob Weiner, they’re a riot. Heartbreakers and comedians, every one, fully embodying the strange way children are in their bodies while also being in full command of bright and poignant songs with excellent music direction from Chris Gray, fun choreography from Melissa Sparks that draws on gymnastics, ballet, modern, and tap, with some soccer kicks, fight moves, and extra twirls for good measure, all while wearing delightful costumes by Grace Santamaria.

The spelling bee takes place in a school auditorium, complete with big framed windows, faux cinder block walls, bleachers, enthusiastic posters, and and elevated center stage from which the terrific orchestra plays—all designed by Sam Snow with hilarious props from Savannah Draper.

Intermittent flash backs interrupt the spelling bee to show the kids’ various predicaments that brought them to their current overachieving moment, and lighting design by Lanford J. Potts indicates crucial shifts in time and mood seamlessly as well as highlights apex musical moments such as “Pandemonium” with colorful, flashing lights. 

Denene Mulay Koch is absolutely perfect as the former spelling bee champ and current organizer who emcees the spelling bee like a sports-announcing schoolmarm. She also doubles as the moms in flashbacks and captures an indescribable blend of perfectionism, longing, and compassion that makes us feel for her as well as the nerdy kids.

She and Michael P. Martin as the cranky, mentally unstable vice principal and hysterical improviser of using unusual words in sentences are wonderful together, reminding us that weird kids turn into weird adults, and that sums up pretty much most of us. And Aaron Pottenger is marvelous as the intimidating chief comforter (with juice boxes and awkward hugs) to spelling bee losers as part of his court-mandated community service, and he shifts gears beautifully to play various dads in the flashbacks. 

It’s a terrifically talented ensemble so funny you almost forget what fantastic singers and dancers they are as they make beautiful this utterly delightful spelling bee that captures our imaginations and reminds us that somehow we survived adolescence; and now, having learned our lessons (or maybe revisiting them now and again), we get to define what it is to win and lose.

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Farmers Alley Theatre
June 12-23