Used in a sentence, the headline above might be, “The shortest review on record for the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s current production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee:
E-X-U-B-E-R-A-N-T E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-C-E.” The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee began life as an improvisational piece, and it retains that energy and dynamic. A spelling bee becomes the locus for viewing, and sometimes remembering, the awkwardness and confusion of early school years. As the spelling bee whittles the contestants down to the winner, each young person’s persona and growing pains take the spotlight often to both poignant and hysterical effect.
The Bee is an ensemble piece, with almost the entire cast on stage throughout the performance. The astounding vocal strength and depth of the cast, and the inventive choreography and whimsical direction (speeding up actions and also going into slow motion at times) make for a very tight production.
Included in the cast are returning Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre veterans Duncan Hood, Alicia Osborn, Rj Pavel and David Thompson (who alternates the role of the vice principal with Duncan Hood).
Making their debut at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre are director Darnell Morris plus Danny Baird, Wendy Baird, Christina Carlucci, Sarah Johansen, Jimmy Mavrikes, Mallory Newbrough and Tobias Young. Make note of that balance, four veterans and eight new performers, because that is important.
So many community theatres are insular, using only the talents of a small insider group. Anne Arundel is fortunate to go against that grain with a vibrant theatre community where actors and directors freely roam from one theater to another and where nurturing new talent seems to be a priority everywhere.
In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, newcomer director Darnell Morris gets great performances from his cast, uninhibited and free-spirited yet still imparting the self-consciousness of young adolescents required by the characters. In addition to the vocal power on stage, the sense of ensemble is exciting.
Audiences take note: Volunteers are recruited to come on stage as contestants. The cast does a really nice job integrating the audience members into the show so that the gimmick of their presence — perhaps yours — is humorous but not gratuitous.
The music, led by Trent Goldsmith, was a bit overmiked but of substantive quality and the set, also designed by Darnell Morris, is rather drab and unexceptional. But those are picayune critiques.
Overall, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a diverting night of funny musical theater, exceptionally well sung and acted by defined and quirky characters in a caldron of competition, pressure and expectations — where all ends as it should, happily.
Lyrics and music by William Finn; book by Rachel Sheinkin. Choreographer: Nicole Martin. Stage manager: Meg Mutschler. Costume designer: Nikki Gerbasi. Lighting designer: Nathan Hawkins.
Playing Thursdays thru Sundays thru July 25 at 8:30pm outdoors at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, 143 Compromise St., Annapolis. $18 w/age discounts: rsvp: 410-268-9212; www.summergarden.com.