Monday, September 13, 2010

Make a bee-line to this Putnam County

Life is pandemonium at the Lyric Stage with the cast of "Putnam County."
This is, I think, Boston's third annual rendition of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (I guess it's a natural for the Athens of America), but the iterations of the show have so far all been champions, with the latest version (at the Lyric Stage through October 2) quite possibly the strongest yet. There's nothing really new in director Stephen Terrell's staging, but this bee still has more sting than its predecessors - the satire is sharper (and sometimes a bit broader), the sense of frustrated youth a little stronger - the bully is a little meaner, the over-achiever even more of a pressure-cooker. This could be reason enough to see the show, if it weren't for the simple talent of the cast, which is as easily as strong as that of the national tour. Director Terrell is a big mucky-muck at Emerson, and has cherry-picked from its graduating class several age-appropriate rising stars; add to that a few thespians who have played their roles at other regional theatres, and a turn from an actress who did the show on Broadway, and you have one of the best casts I've ever seen at the Lyric - and in vocal terms one of the best casts I've seen locally, period. (All the better showcased because this particular theatre still valiantly refuses to mike its performers - thank you.)

Of course, even in the best of hands, there's only so far the relentless quirk of Putnam County can take you. (We're not talking South Pacific here.) And director Terrell has unwisely decided against an intermission - which makes the stasis of the situation, when added to the relative lack of variation in composer William Finn's clever but repetitive songs, begin to feel almost as long as - well, an actual spelling bee. Still, Rachel Sheinkin's book is always wittily observant of its white, New Age milieu (no Tea Partiers in this crowd, that's for sure). And we always have the reliable Will McGarrahan to distract us as the slightly-weird vice principal with the deadpan definitions and sample sentences, along with the appealing Kerri Jill Garbis as his perky foil. Rounding out the "grown-up" cast, De'Lon Grant likewise made a believably pissed-off parolee doing community service as a juicebox-equipped "grief counselor."

If the adults were admirable, however, the kids were even cooler; each seemed just about perfectly cast and delivered ace characterizations and vocals (although sometimes I wasn't sure I could bear any more adorability from Leaf Coneybear). So here's to Sam Simahk (the unfortunately tumescent Chip), Lexie Fennell Frare (a super-sensitive Logainne), Michael Borges (an aggressively vulnerable Leaf), Daniel Vito Siefring (a surprisingly nasty William Bar-fay), Lisa Yuen (a sad class-superstar Marcy), and Krista Buccellato (a sweetly longing Olive): you guys are as good as Boston musical theatre gets.  I wasn't sure we needed another trip to Putnam County, but you made it more than worthwhile.

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