It has been a joy to discover there are still good, new musicals being produced that capture modern life. For musicals to work, they have to have both excellent narrative and strong, character-driven songs. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is just such a musical.
Telluride Theater’s Artistic Director, Sasha Cucciniello, was charged with reviving the spring musical that was once an anticipated hallmark of the Telluride Repertory Theater Company’s season. This was the Rep and Cucciniello’s SquidShow Theater’s primary goal when they merged earlier this year. The choice of “Bee” blends the two company’s artistic philosophies perfectly. Best of all, longtime local theater stalwart and pianist Bobbie Shaffer is in the orchestra pit.
Shaffer, who also serves on the TT board, understands the allure of the musical in a town so far from Broadway. It is her commitment and vision to musical theater in Telluride that midwifed this happy return. But beyond that, Shaffer, whose keyboard virtuosity has powered musicals in Telluride since the 1970s, loves to play.
“This is the hardest music I have ever played,” she stated without an iota of whine, but with a sharp grin that means she has welcomed the challenge. Not only has she risen to it, she’s doing it alone. No percussion, no bass, no strings nothing but Bobbie Shaffer and her 88s.
“Bee” begins with a bang. Anna Robinson as Rona is one of Telluride’s amazing, new voices. Her character anchors the cast in every way as a former champion speller and now a matron of the contest. The nervous, young spellers who wriggle before her get her stern empathy throughout the ordeal. Her songs soar, and her reserve is her strength.
The young hopefuls waiting to compete are strung about the necks with numbered cards that give no clue to the pandemonium roiling within each of their reeling psyches.
Elizabeth Forsythe, another new, shining presence on the local music scene, plays twitchy Olive with focused intensity. Ethan Hale’s Barfee leads magic foot first into the neurosis-inducing stress of the spelling bee.
Marcy Park, played by Stewart Barbour, sheds her Catholic school guilt, frees herself of expectations and blooms. Logainne Schwarzand Grubinnierre, portrayed by Taylor Clay, is driven by overbearing parents, but finds personal redemption in her own gleaming sense of justice. Colin Sullivan’s smartly played Leaf Coneybear is one of the odder ducks in the whole gaggle of odd ducks on stage. He endears himself completely.
Jimmy Wilson’s Chip Tolentino is the hormone-addled, easily distracted speller whose burgeoning interest in girls proves his undoing. His fresh, direct take on his character is uncomfortably delightful.
Together, these actors make up a terrific ensemble, bonded by compassion for their quirky characters and whose voices lend each kid a distinctive tug at the heartstrings. You cannot help but want to comfort each of them as they sing their unique woes.
But the comforting is left to the steely Megan Rood, who plays Mitch, whose job it is to console each misspeller as he or she exits the contest. She exudes a hard-bitten gentleness that is perfect for the role.
The height of quirkiness falls to Tom Shane, whose Vice Principal Douglas Panch is a plaid-encrusted creep of a guy whose whispered-at past lurks like a shadow. Some of the funniest lines in “Bee” fall to Panch, whose job it is to provide the contextual sentences for the words the spellers must tackle. Shane excels with every bizarre utterance, shoulders hunched, eyes darting here and there. In the end, his compassionate act only adds layers to this temperamental oddball.
The chorus of Meghan McCormick, Emma Walker Silverman and Elissa Dickson ably take on different roles, all with solid confidence and harmonious presence.
Intuitive actors all, each cast member spills the guts of their characters, one by one, each more heart-rending than the next. The pressures, insecurities and the insane family dynamics we all have experienced to one degree or another are poured on the stage, for all to see. Yet each of these vulnerable creatures draws toughness and clarity from that confessional moment. It works because “Bee’s” music hops and jumps and glides as effortlessly as hormones and insecurities rage in the young.
Ultimately two of the oddest children find each other, reveling in their shared knowledge of the arcane and geeky. Their unity results in something so normal as to surprise even themselves.
Subtly costumed and simply lit (the ubiquitous and extremely skillful Mark Worth conceived the set design and lighting), the set evokes the utilitarianism of a stage in any school gym/cafeteria in America. Dean Rolley’s sound design completes the overall feel. Again, simplicity is the happy result.
See “Bee.” It is not only a celebration of the return of the musical in Telluride, but of spring, of renewal, of the joy of finding one’s true self.
Tickets for adults and children (this is a PG-13 show) are available here, or by calling 970-369-5679.