Review Round-Up: SPELLING BEE


“It’s tough being a kid, and the pay is very low. You may have forgotten how it was to bear the sodden weight of your parents’ expectations while coping with the assault of the raging hormones, but book-writer Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn, who composed a witty upbeat score, did not, and neither has Keegan Theatre. That’s why their earnest, intimate, pleasing production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee earns my highest rating …  Director Christina A. Coakley has brought out the childhood innocence of the characters in a way I’ve never seen before … Keegan calibrates the entire production to achieve the light-hearted mood of the show.  George Lucas’ set design conveys the gymnasium feel with a cartoonish flavor.  Elisa Rosman and the orchestra handle Finn’s melodically complex music with tempo and poise.  Melissa Douglass Bustamante’s choreography is appropriately childlike and joyful.”

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“Theater in D.C. — what does it mean to you? An outing to the Kennedy Center or Shakespeare Theater, perhaps?   …  Try the Keegan Theater: formerly a girls gymnasium, the Keegan is located on Church Street NW between 17th and 18th streets, nestled among private residences and a quaint church.The theater space itself seats a little more than 100 guests — small in comparison to venues such as the Kennedy Center, but the perfect size to host musicals such as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Aside from the impressive acting of those officially cast, what made the musical so great was the way the space facilitated informal audience participation and engagement … he 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a masterful mix of talent and script as well as improv, engagement and audience participation. Though this musical garnered great acclaim across its time on Broadway, what made it so wonderful here at Keegan was the intimate atmosphere the space offered, which is something you won’t find at such places as the Kennedy Center. For now, there doesn’t seem to be a better match than 25th Annual and Keegan.”

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“How do you spell Keegan Theatre’s rousing and sweet and often touching production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee? (‘Spelling Bee’) F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S and W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L! Everyone in town seems to have this show on their season schedule and I’ve already seen three other local productions, but this Keegan Theatre production is the most endearing, heartwarming, and the funniest I’ve seen. It’s pure joy! Spelling Bee is 90 minutes of uninterrupted fun (there is no intermission). … a fabulous cast – filled with some of our best local young talented actors and singers … vocally, this is the strongest group of singers I have seen in a production mounted since the Broadway production. The harmonies on the opening title song were heavenly, and right then I knew we were in for a fantastic evening of singing and acting.”

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“This comic musical by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin has a way of dredging up the most humiliating, humbling memories of your formative years. Like the agony of not being elected class president. Or getting your first B. And if you’re one of four audience members picked to join the bee, then you’re literally 12 again, grasping for the letters with which to spell ‘ignominy.’  Keegan Theatre, which in 2009 became the first Washington theater to take on its own production of ‘Rent,’ is following that success with the first homegrown production of ‘The Bee,’ a tale of preteens who are driven — but more likely pushed and prodded — to win a local spelling bee (though the only thing most of them need is a little attention and affirmation from the grown-ups). While “Rent” may have had a built-in fan base, this less-familiar 2005 Broadway offering might just find an audience of kindred spirits in Washington, a magnet for former wunderkinds…”

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Spelling Bee’s performers seem to be having an absolutely awesome time on the island of misfit spellers. Big musical numbers such as “My Friend, the Dictionary” and “My Unfortunate Erection” call for deadpan expressions but also allow the cast to showcase their mostly impressive voices …   As the kindly but ambitious Peretti, McManus, who appeared last year in Signature Theatre’s production of Chess, is one of the strongest performers vocally. The rest of the cast demonstrate an obvious flair for comedy, particularly Dan Sonntag as the chubby, habitually mispronounced William Barfée. … Keegan’s tiny theater on Church Street makes for an extremely realistic gymnasium, decked out with bleachers and ironic signs celebrating “The 25th Annual Putnam County Speling Bee.”   …  It might be the taking part that counts, but this show is a winner in its own way.”

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“Rachel Sheinkin’s scenes unleash dozens of gleaming gags, and as the Keegan Theatre production proves, they’re utterly dependable … The sure-voiced performers brim with cheery determination … The Keegan troupe has proved that it can create quality sound in its Church Street musicals … The singer-actors are appealing, with fetching impressions made by Madeline Botteri as the gentle but abandoned Olive Ostrovsky, Michael Innocenti as the daffy Leaf Coneybear, Dan Sonntag as the breathing-challenged William Barfee, Katie McManus as the adult who still dwells in her glory days as a past champion — it’s a balanced, capable cast.  ‘Putnam’ makes splendid use of a few preselected audience members as contestants; you can spot them on the bleachers cracking up at the show unfolding around them. Like the rest of the losers, they get escorted off the stage with a hug and a juice box and a chorus of ‘Goodbye’ when they blow a word. The delightful, inventive script even gets fleeting topical updates, which means a little more bad news for Anthony Weiner. … But only a little, for “Putnam” really is a warmhearted show, a teddy bear of a musical ….”
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“I was the disruptive woman guffawing in the fifth row. Spelling Bee is a great show for native English speakers who love comedy, musicals, or musical comedy. It was created by an improv troupe, and gradually moved up the venue ranks from Barrington Stage to off-Broadway to Broadway, taking home multiple Tonys in 2005.  … Shortly after the catchy, eponymous opening number, four volunteers take seats on the bleachers. … the funniest moments come early in the show, when the host and pronouncer send up spelling-bee protocols with a mix of improv, scripted text, and current-event gags. … Spelling Bee appeals to that same Gnostic desire: By all means,  let’s relive mortifying adolescent moments, but please make it entertaining the second time around….”
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