Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater is closing the current season — its 27th — with a light-hearted musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” (Off-Broadstreet fans should not despair; the new season will begin in less than two months.) Conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” began life as a straight play and eventually, in its musical reincarnation, ran for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway. In 2005 it was nominated for six Tony awards and won two (best book for a musical and best featured actor). It has been performed in many cities across the United States and had runs in Hong Kong, Australia, the Phillipines, and South Korea.
Six members of the cast, identified as the Spellers, take part in the annual contest. They are joined by four volunteers from the audience, who turn out to be the first contestants to be eliminated. The three other members of the cast are the Adults: Rona Lisa Perretti, the leading realtor in Putnam County and a former winner of the spelling bee, who is in charge of this year’s contest; vice principal Douglas Panch, who gives the contestants their words and generally answers their questions; and Mitch Mahoney, who keeps the contestants in order and hands out consolation fruit drinks to those who are eliminated.
The casting of the Spellers sets up one of the most striking aspects of this production. The Spellers are all still in school, but the actors who play them are all adults. This device creates unusual freedom for the actors and produces some interesting readings of a child’s reactions. These children are special — they know how to spell words that most of the adults in Off Broadstreet’s audience (probably the audience at most any theater) wouldn’t know. It is not always the case, though, that these children understand all the words whose spelling they can recite.
A spelling bee has a structure that most people are familiar with: contestants are fed increasingly difficult words that they must spell from memory; they are allowed to ask for a definition of the word and examples of its use in a sentence. The fact that the routine is standard allows the audience to fit the play into a known frame. But the authors make sure the bee doesn’t stay in that frame. And the particular way the bee goes off course at any given moment secures the audience’s attention.
Several Off-Broadstreet regulars take part in this production. Perretti is played by Alison Quairoli, whom OBT fans may remember from “Crossing Delancey” and “Bedside Manners,” to mention just two of the many shows she has done at the theater (12 at last count). Barry Abramowitz, another long-term OBT asset, appeared most recently in “First Things First.” He has also been in OBT’s productions of “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Crossing Delancey,” and “Guys and Dolls,” among many others. He takes on the role of vice principal Douglas Panch. In this production they both make it clear why they are such favorites.
None of the other cast members disappoint. Quite the contrary. Timothy Walton plays the third adult and is very amusing handing out his consolation drinks and escorting the eliminated contestants off stage. It is also a pleasure to hear his soaring high tenor voice when he sings. (The program bio tells us he teaches voice by day). The Spellers include OBT veterans John Bergeron as William Barfee, Tappany Hochman as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (her last name presumably derives from the fact that the character has two fathers), Mariel Rosati as Marcy Park, Danielle Shinder as Olive Ostovsky, and Timothy Walton as Mitch Mahoney. The newcomers are Christian Carrara as Leaf Coneybear and Hunter Chadeayne as Chip Tolentino.
Some of the contestants have developed some amusing coping devices — one boy checks the spelling of his words by writing them with his foot, which can be a problem when he gets gum on the sole of his shoe.
Tim Brown serves as musical director and deserves credit for the high performance level of the ensemble. He also plays piano for the two-man band, with James Jarvie on drums. They are exemplary as accompanists, and occasionally (and very briefly) they provide some satisfying solo work as well.
The direction and design for this production are once again in the hands of Robert Thick. And once again the direction produces a reading that is clear and entertaining without being fussy or pretentious. The set is, as always, attractive and functional, but in this case the design is a little different from what OBT regulars have been seeing recently. At stage right are bleachers where the contestants sit; at stage left is a table for Perretti and vice principal Panch. Curved interior walls painted “institutional green” frame the rear of the stage, with a door in the center to let out the eliminated contestants. Ann Raymond has designed the costumes, and for the spellers she has come up with some amusing and quirky ideas. The choreography, which often involves large ensembles and some complicated maneuvers, is in Julie Thick’s capable hands.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, December 17. Musical about a group of adolescents vying for the championship. Audience members may volunteer to join the cast to compete in the bee. $27.50 to $29.50 includes dessert. 609-466-2766 and www.off-broadstreet.com.