I know it’s stupid, but I have an inherent distrust for comedies. Years of the laugh track have eventually worn me into a bit of a curmudgeon. But it’s that silent injection of serotonin that generally makes life livable, and I am nearly overwhelmed when a production like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee literally pumps me full of happiness.
This musical incorporates improvisation and audience participation in a seamless and fantastic way. Essentially, you play witness to an adolescent spelling bee with all the drama and magic of an ESPN broadcast, except that four audience members get to join in the competition on stage, oh and there’s music! I would have thought we were at a special Valentine’s Day edition of the performance, and as it turns out, we were. We came to find that Ted Dowling writes a custom list of spelling words, definitions, and sentences for each night of the performance which is why “love” and “aphrodisiac” slipped into the script on Valentine’s Day. He delivers the spelling words to the cast from the role of Vice Principal Panch, who in my estimation was the creepiest and most hilariously disturbing character I have seen in quite a long time. Opposite Dowling was Gina Marie Russell as Rona Lisa Peretti, a role akin to Kirstie Alley in Drop Dead Gorgeous, except with a fantastic voice. They made an equal and opposite panel of bee judges that perfectly complimented the comedic awkwardness at the core of this show.
Our hero, played by Justin Lynn, was a Don-King-haired idiot savant named William Barfee who used his magic foot to help spell his way to the championship. Lynn is an amazingly tall behemoth of a man that eclipsed the stage with his stoic and solitary teddy bear character. The lucky audience member who sat next to him on stage received one of the most incredibly uncomfortable stares I’ve ever seen. Lynn is serious business.
Stand-out performances by literally every member of the cast. Ryan O’Donnell killed it as a caped roller-shoe kid, Todd Baylor expertly transitioned us between multiple characters and scenes, Colleen Gillon tugged pretty hard on my heartstrings, Lauren Stone was like a fireworks show during her song, James Sgambati gets the gold for the most believable adolescent & Michelle Abad was a real-life Chelshee Madshen in the flesh, ’nuff said. This ensemble was expertly curated and they created an incredible experience at BPA.
I’m always amazed with the production quality out at the Bainbridge Performing Arts Theater. Just a short trip across the ferry brings you to one of the area’s best equipped community theaters. Their building is gorgeous, their sets are top notch, and their talent is consistently incredible. It seems like such a trip for a city-dweller (and if you miss the weekday 9:30 ferry it actually does become an extended trip) but it is well worth it. Walk on to the ferry because BPA is a 10-15 minute walk from the terminal through the quaint and welcoming Bainbridge Town Square. For someone usually caught up in life, harboring a distrust for comedy, this community and theater deliver time and time again.
This is the last weekend of shows for this production. Don’t miss it!