When you combine nerdy teens and simpleton teachers in a 2.5 hour musical play, it’s a thin premise for many theater goers. Such is the complaint with the “Putnam County Spelling Bee” at the Schneider Theater in Bloomington.
I was recruited to be in the audience for a dress rehearsal last night and I left after the first act. The young performers are spirited and professional, the sets and costumes are great but it’s not enough to sustain two acts. Unless one or all of the teens turn vampire I can’t see how this got better. If the second act was better than the first then they should have just skipped the first.
Several non actors from the audience were recruited to be spellers.
The opera singer who was a standout in ‘Les Miz” is a highlight in the close of the first act ensemble song and dance big number. This Afro American actor at about seven feet tall is an enormous talent, but he is cast in the stereotypical street hood role as a “hall monitor.” “Magic Foot” is a big first act number that might have been inspired by Busby Berkeley. “Spelling Bee” seeks to profit from the success of “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Grease” and would be promising for several local high schools here.
A professional “laugher,” reminiscent of the laugh track from 1950s sitcoms, cackled and screeched like a banshee for most of the first act and into the intermission. She must have been sitting on a bowl of feathers, because the gags built around the students spelling aren’t that hilarious.
Obviously the Bloomington Civic Theater is tempting 20 and 30 somethings to drop their I Pads and see “Spelling Bee,” but that may be a risky strategy. The civic theater had a good run with “Singing in the Rain” and “Les Miz”. But think of the people who paid big bucks to see “Spelling Bee” on Broadway. — Dave Zarkin