"Spelling Bee" a summer treat at Theater by the Sea

PROVIDENCE, RI – Around here, the summer theater season really begins when Theater by the Sea opens. Last weekend they began a version of a Broadway hit about, of all things, a spelling bee.

Can you spell "nebbish?" Can you define it as pitiful, ineffective, timid or submissive? If you can (or even if you can't) you are pretty sure to love this opening show at Theater by the Sea.

For "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is nothing short of a delight, a charmer that also makes a nice point. "Spelling Bee," you see, looks in on a bunch of adolescents that some people would call . . . well, losers. But this delightful production shows the kids as, well, just like all of us: struggling, winning, losing and keepin' on keepin' on.

The plot looks in on the kids at the bee, their wonderful teacher, their not-so-wonderful principal and parents. All is tension, all is hope and fear. These kids, the kind who have played, as the script says, "road kill" at Halloween, know they are at a turning point. A win, even a high finish, will be a great boon; an early loss? Let's not think about that.

From there, "Spelling Bee" is often hilarious. The jokes, some of them pretty risqu , come fast and furious. But what really makes "Spelling Bee" is that book writer Rachel Sheinkin gives us incisive views into the internal lives of the kids. It's never a forced technique. It's the kind of thing where you find yourself nodding, thinking, "Oh yeah, I remember that from junior high."

Veteran theater man William Finn (best known for "Falsettos" on Broadway) contributes a hard-charging score that rocks pretty good.

At Matunuck, director Aimee Turner has staged "Spelling Bee" as just short of lunacy. The cast is all over the place, in your face, throwing candy to (or is that at) the crowd, racing up and down the aisles, and generally creating a feel for junior high pandemonium.

The cast, made up of New York veterans and young folks still in college, is uniformly strong, playing with panache but not going over the top. All of which makes "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" a decided winner, a summer treat.

And that is just as you would hope. Over the show's opening weekend we lost Tommy Brent, the man who ran Theatre by the Sea for 21 seasons Tommy actually saved Matunuk twice: when he first took it over, in 1967 and in 2007 when he helped bring in the current operators, Amiee Turner, Joel Kipper, and Bill Hanney, to keep it going. This production does him proud. Rest in peace, Tommy.

Want to Go?
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at Theater by the Sea through June 19th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for WRNI.

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