Sunday, February 20, 2011

Theatre review: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" from CMU School of Drama

You wouldn’t think that a show about students competing in a spelling bee could be much fun. For such kids that kind of thing could be a cause for serious nail-biting. Spelling a word correctly can be a major problem for any of us in the privacy of our own confrontations with keyboards and monitors. However we can always use Spellcheck. (uh-oh: a red line under the preceding word tells me that Spell Check does not validate that version of its name). Imagine, then, if, in front of a large assemblage of people, some of whom, including familial companions, seek your vanquishment, in your innocent youth, you had to correctly verbalize the letters of opaque words contained in intricate phrases which could even perplex adults. If you see what I mean.

It turns out, though, that Rachel Sheinkin, Rebecca Feldman, Jay Reiss and William Finn’s musical The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee not only provides a lot of fun, it also has acute observations about such an event. And a Carnegie Mellon School of Drama cast comes up with the right responses to the challenges, guided with wit and invention by visiting director Joe Deer, who has major off-Broadway credits. Speaking of credits, this double- Tony winner from 2005 ran on Broadway for 2 years and eight months.

Fundamentally the focus is on the competition itself, during which the contest’s organizer and successful real estate agent Rona Lisa Peretti (Rona Lisa they have named you; you’re so like the lady with the mystic smile) tells the audience about the backgrounds of the kids and it’s up to Vice- Principal Douglas Panch of Lake Hemingway-Dos Passos Junior High to read the words and give follow-up definitions. Those are the sources of constant laughs. Likewise an hilarious surprise: a non-parochial school visit by Jesus Christ. Among the other added unexpected attractions: pre-show, audience members have a chance to participate up close by volunteering to be on- stage contestants

Throughout, on the serious, significant side, there are scenes flashing back into the kids’ past, seeing the roles their parents play or don’t play at this important moment in the lives of their children. Some of the adults are pushy. Some are absent. i.e This is more than a light entertainment.

Kaleigh Cronin, interpreting Rona Lisa, stands out with superb singing plus a believable characterization of a no longer young woman. She’s one of two CMU students alternating in the role. Among the kid contestants I found Darren Bluestone sweetly charming as home-schooled Leaf Coneybear who comes from a large family of former hippies and constantly is challenged to spell the names of South American rodents. Kyle Rotter likewise leaves a strong impression playing nerdy William Barfée whose allergy to peanuts and the absence of a working nostril always threatens his survival. Plus in the role of over-achiever Marcy Park, Gabriel McClinton does wonders displaying the girl’s multiple talents.

Everyone sings and dances capably, but being in good voice isn’t required considering that such characters would be transitioning into puberty. Meanwhile the songs by William Finn mostly sound more utilitarian than musically interesting although a couple of them have attractive Sondheim-like harmonies.

Dramaturg Nicholas Mudd provides interesting background notes in the program book. But he says nothing at all about Finn or Rachel Sheinkin, co-creators of this wonderful show.

Finn’s musical
Falsettos received the 1992 Tony Awards for Best Music and Lyrics and for Best Book. He’s also well-known for a musical loosely based on his near-death experience following brain surgery, A New Brain, which starred Malcolm Gets, Kristin Chenoweth and Chip Zien at Lincoln Center Theater in 1998 and won the 1999 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical. Now he’s responsible for the songs in a musical version of the movie Little Miss Sunshine which just opened at California’s La Jolla Playhouse.

Rachel Sheinkin wrote the book for a musical version of Little House on the Prairie originating in 2008 at Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. It had a subsequent national tour and a production at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. She’s worked on a theatre project with the rock trio GrooveLily, Striking 12. It played off-Broadway in 2006. She wrote the book for a musical called Sleeping Beauty Wakes created for L.A. acting company Deaf West plus Blood Drive a musical produced by Bridewell Theatre, London. Sheinkin is also on the faculty of New York’s Tisch School of The Arts and teaches at Yale School of Drama.

Such facts as these are frequently missing from programs of small, amateur theatre companies. In fact such absence underscores amateurishness, as if the producers are indifferent to the writers without whom they’d have no show. Often their program books contain substantial paragraphs about less significant backstage people such as assistant stage managers, word space which could be better used. In this, dramaturg Mudd used two full pages for a crossword “Brainteaser” which, although a clever idea, should not substitute for telling audience members about the creative artists whose work is the foundation for the entire enterprise. Considering that this comes from a university which is supposed to teach students about theatre, the absence discredits a highly regarded institution.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through February 26th at New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. Info and tickets: 412/ 268-2407 and


  1. If there is an entire section of bios, why would it be necessary to have a bio on the writers within the text of the dramaturgical notes? I agree that there should have been a bio of these writers, but the dramaturg's notes are not the place for that.

    Also, there were two biographies in the program, neither of which were about people who could be considered incidental to the show as you seem to imply that assistant stage managers are.

  2. Dear Mr. Spencer:

    Let me be blunt: I find your criticism to be largely unprofessional. Although Carnegie Mellon productions seek to perform at the professional level, the institution primarily serves a pedagogical purpose. In your criticism, you describe Mr. Mudd's dramaturgical notes as "amateurish" and "ignorant." The implication, then, is that Mr. Mudd is himself both ignorant and and amateur, as exemplified by his work. How can you so pointedly attack Mr. Mudd for participating in this learning experience? While it is perfectly acceptable to critique such work, the manner in which you have done so is disrespectful, transcending the realm of criticism and instead participating in an open attack on a named person--a student, no less.

    Please know that the information presented in the School of Drama's Spelling Bee program note was, first, contractually obligated and, secondly, subject to publishing, directorial, and academic requirements.

    Finally, it is not the chief aim of the dramaturg to provide a biography of the playwrights, but rather to orient the audience within the world of the play. Furthermore, Carnegie Mellon does not treat its program notes as playbills, and program note for Spelling Bee reflects this. Please note that the only biographies that do appear in the note are, as I have stated, those required by contract.

    I hope that in the future you are able to engage and critique the work of student-artists in a way that is not mean-spirited and does not largely discredit and overlook The School of Drama as an academic institution.

    Thank you for your time.

  3. Thank you both for your interest and for taking the time to comment.

    Re Drangonfly's remarks: There was no "entire section of bios." There were no bios at all. But I remain convinced that the writers are the most important people whose bios should take precedence over any others. As for the dramaturg's notes, evidently he was the only credited writer of what was in the program book. So it looks as if he is responsible for the ommissions. Yes, there was info about some other people responsible for the work, but the two most famous ones got no me mention. Sure, assitant stage managers are significant, but if print space is limited, they are less important that the writers

    Meanwhile I contend that some people in the audiences would like to know about the writers. Since this is a production by an educational institution,I think it's even more important for that institution to prove that it not only knows a great deal about theater but also wants its audience to know.

    As for comments by 014d44ae-3ecb-11e0-8075-000bcdcb2996. Please read again what I wrote; I did not say that Mr. Mudd's notes were amatuerish and ignorant. I did not attack Mr.Mudd. I was trying to make a point about omissions similar to those in this program book. I respect what Mr. Mudd was trying to do and found that what he did include is informative and useful. gs

  4. I went back and looked at the program book and see that a couple of things I wrote above are in error. There are two bios for Joe Deer and Thomas W. Douglas.And actually Peter Cooke wrote the introduction. But, again, I do not say specifcally that Mr. Mudd is responsible for the omissions of which I am critical.I also find no use of the word "ignorant" in what I wrote. And I refer to amateurishness of some other theatre producers...not being implied, not stating it as a fact.

  5. As the person responsible for teaching the students those specific skills, I also teach my students that the critic's work is half the artistic conversation, and we are thankful for it, and we certainly do not send up a hue and cry if we are criticized harshly, so long as it is fair. But here's a funny thing: as it turns out, the materials Mr. Spencer was looking for in Mr. Mudd's program were actually presented very clearly in the lobby display of the event. Putting them in the program would have been redundant, and indeed a waste of limited space. I do not say that Mr. Spencer's review was "amateurish," but perhaps we can at least recognize how difficult it is for any artist to incorporate criticism when it is given before all the evidence is evaluated. My thanks to Mr. Spencer for his years of service as a critic in our community.

  6. Wow! This is becoming quite a forum! As for Dt. Chemers' comments, I wasn't aware, especially given the crowd at the opening performance, that the information I missed was on display. I believe, however, that most audiences are used to looking at program books first if they want such information, not wandering around the lobby in search of such material, especially when talking to friends.
    In this case, however, the program book does not direct anyone to the lobby display, which would have been useful.

    As for limited program book space, as I said in my review,there were two pages used for a clever puzzle which could have been used for information instead. Plus, two full pages, using a fairly large font, were devoted to Mr. Deer and to Mr.Douglas. Certainly they deserve respect and admiration for their talents and experience,but that space could have been used more efficiently, perhaps giving information, as well. about the cast. I have talked to other theatre producers about similar omissions in their books in the past and have heard the same explanation about limited space, but a good program book editor would have found such space,perhaps by shortening some other entry, and/or chooing a smaller font.

    Personally, should anyone reading this be interested, I volunteer myself to edit such program books, gratis, so long as I'm permitted to include information about the most important people from whom everyone else in the production derives their source. gs

  7. Hey, we're happy whenever a critic acknowledges dramaturgy, instead of just pirating our notes for the reviews!