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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, is Hendricks Civic Theatre’s 2018-19 season opener. Directed by Ryan Thompson, this delightfully quirky musical comedy first came to Broadway in 2005 and has enjoyed a succession of productions by theatre groups across the country and around the world. The show is stocked with a plethora of atypical songs and  some truly hilarious laugh lines.

In the story, a group of area champion spellers are meeting to compete for the Putnam County title and are led by an adult former champion and monitored by a vice principal with some past undisclosed infractions. Add in a “comfort counselor”, who is a parolee doing his community service work, and I think you get the picture for what kind of eccentric proceedings are offered here. Each child brings a unique and sometimes bizarre personality quirk to the contest, and the fun is expanded by including several extra contestants “from the audience”.

Director Thompson must count himself lucky to get the wonderful cast he has for the production. Alphabetically, they are – Shelby Brown as over-achiever Marcy Park; Onis Dean as parolee Mitch Mahoney; Robert Ellis as confident contestant William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay); Cameron Hicks as the very special Leaf Conybear; Codie Knose as the easily upset Vice Principal Douglas Panch; Jackson Lindner as the suddenly pubescent Chip Tolentino; Rachel McKenney as the pie-in-the-sky past champion Rona Lisa Peretti, Gabby Niehaus as the raised by gay fathers Logainne Schwartzandgrubeniere; and Jennifer Wells as the parental-love seeking Olive Ostrovsky.

There is plenty of ensemble work to be had here (highlighted by the extensively choreographed “Pandemonium”) but the script is unique in that it also provides each of the characters with their own spotlight moment. Hicks shows off a beautiful voice in Leaf’s “I’m Not that Smart” – I was also impressed by his sweetness of character without going over board. Ellis is terrific in his confident “Magic Foot” number, while Lindner’s “My Unfortunate Erection/Distraction” nearly stops the show entering the second act. Ms. Niehaus is cute and sensitive in her plaintive “Woe is Me” about her parents’ expectation levels. Ms. Brown romps around the stage in her lively “I Speak Six Languages” and Ms. Wells’ “The I Love You Song” takes a dramatic turn as she portrays her longing for her parents’ love, joined with wonderful turns by Ms. McKenney and Mr. Dean. The latter two actually have several rather high-end performance opportunities that they make the most of with their obvious vocal talents.

The show is wholly entertaining – every minute is lively and fun. Mr. Knoses’s V.P. Panch provides many of the funniest lines in the competition, with his responses to “Can you use that (word) in a sentence, please.”

The orchestra led by Musical Director Linda Parr sounds great throughout and the choreography by Karla Janning keeps the show moving in interesting ways. The set design by Andy Janning works well, and costumes by Chris Grady fill the bill.

This is a wonderful show with many great performances, and I hate to express a negative here, but I feel it is a very important one to note. Very often there is a definite deficit in the performers’ ability to be heard. One single mike down stage center is useful much of the time to alleviate the problem, but as the actors move about, their singing voices become rather difficult to hear and/or to understand. Often, the band plays at a level that drowns out the words of an unmiked singer or speaker. An obvious solution would be to mike all the performers, but I think that would likely have been done if that range of technology was available at this theatre. (Jackson Lindner’s early act two solo was effective and I noticed he wore an over-the-ear mike for that number.) I hope a solution can be found for this noteworthy problem. I expect a set of wireless personal mikes is high on the “must-have” list for this theatre company. They are presenting such a high-quality product here and it is a shame to not connect fully with their audiences. End of negativity.

Bottomline: Regardless of any problems, I feel the show overall is a very winning and enjoyable production of a really fun script. All the performers deserve recognition – there are no weak cogs in this one, believe me.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will continue through September 30th at HCT’s Longstreet Playhouse venue located at 4998 N County Road 100 E – north of Danville. Ticket information can be found by going to http://www.hendrickscivic.com or by calling (317) 913-3126.

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