Putnam Spelling Bee is a Winner

PTC's season opener is a creative look at not always fitting in

The musical's set at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

The 35th anniversary of Philadelphia Theatre Company‘s (PTC) season starts off on a great (magical) foot with the Tony Award-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Baby-faced stage veterans, including Marla Mindelle (recently seen in South Pacific on Broadway) as a spastic spelling judge, give it their all in this short, but sweet musical about what it means to face adversity during puberty.

The colorful cast of characters fit right into composer and lyricist William Finn’s menagerie of musical theatre successes, including the Falsettos trilogy that first gave gay life and the AIDS crisis a melody back in the 1980s. Five years ago, PTC also produced Finn’s Elegies. And in keeping with his comedic flair and quirky songwriting, this latest Putnam Valley production has plenty to offer Philly audiences – from fine acting to funny moments and poignant revelations about being on the brink of greatness (or not).

Directed by Broadway veteran Marc Bruni, the musical tells the tale of six tweens vying to win what seems like the most important spelling competition of a lifetime. The cast of outsiders somehow makes losing seem fun as they warble about everything from their pushy gay dads to untimely erections. And while the goofy, bespectacled William Barfee (Will Blum) is a scene stealer thanks to his off-beat demeanor and precociousness, each of the well-played roles offers unique perspectives on growing up – missteps, tinsel teeth and all.

The breakout role of Mitch Maloney, a parolee looking for a new life by slinging juice boxes to pimply kids, is expertly played by Jerold E. Solomon whose booming, soulful voice offers a nice balance to the sometimes high-pitched tweens. Despite initial reservations about watching young adults take on parts that are sometimes 10 or more years younger than the actors themselves, the show manages to suspend disbelief and step into a world where fitting in doesn’t always mean being a winner.

On a gay-friendly scale, the musical is subtle, but very palpable, particularly with the character of Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre (Ephie Aardema), a 10th grader who very proudly started her school’s first gay, lesbian and straight alliance and has the awkward pleasure of trying to fulfill her two overbearing gay fathers’ idea of success. Belting out a few memorable songs, she appears with a mouth full of braces, pink-triangle buttons and, like every other speller on the stage, with the hope of taking home the coveted trophy which is never too far from anyone’s minds.

Want to have some laughs? Revel in what it was like to still be “finding” yourself? Relive your own awkward years through this adept score and cast? Then go see The 25th Annual Putnam Valley Spelling Bee. It’s probably not what you’d expect from a musical (or from TV’s Glee) but will likely end up being everything you’d want from a creative genius like Finn who’s managed to make the seemingly “unlaughable” extremely entertaining all these years.

The 25th Annual Putnam Valley Spelling Bee ($51-$69) plays through Dec. 12 at Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre (Broad and Lombard Streets), 215-985-0420. Please note that on Thursday, Dec. 9 (6:45 p.m.), ticket holders are invited to join PTC for Night OUT!, a pre-show LGBT-friendly reception with cocktails, light fare and a backstage tour.