October 1st – October 25th, 2015

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

That was a magical night in the theater. The ensemble has great spirit, and their skills are phenomenal.” – Bruce Cowan

Two shows added due to popularity!

Saturday Oct. 24th, 2:30pm and Sunday October 25th, 7:30pm

Dare to Triumph.

Under the quirky eyes of the grownups in charge, six overachieving students vie for spelling glory in this Tony Award-winning musical.

Read the review from The Kitsap Sun’s Michael Moore..

KCPT Finds the Human Side of ‘Spelling Bee’ Characters

PORT TOWNSEND — The Quimper Quarrel might’ve been going on across the street, but it had nothing on the “Putnam Pugilistics” going on at Key City Playhouse.

While Port Townsend High School was racking up a one-sided victory over Chimacum in their annual rivalry football game, director Amy Sousa and her cast and crew were scoring a pretty significant win themselves with a rich, funny and touching take on “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

I’ve seen several other productions of “Spelling Bee,” all of them competent or better, but I’d have to say KCPT’s opening-night outing in a sold-out Key City Playhouse would be my favorite so far.

For a lot of reasons.

The set, right down to the hardwood floor and the borrowed-from-the-library chairs, is simple but evocative, giving the tiny stage the impression of a much larger space. The costumes (by Tamara Halligan) are de rigeur spelling-bee nerdly. And the music, handled by Linda Dowdell leading a spot-on quintet, and sung with almost uniform aplomb by the cast of nine, is delightful.

But it’s the performances, and the obvious thought that went into them, that makes this “Spelling Bee” stand out.

Rebecca Feldman’s collection of rites-of-passage stories, put under the roof of some junior-high gym or other on the day of the storied competition that is the path to glory for a half-dozen ultra-quirky ‘tweens — perhaps the greatest glory they’ll ever know.

The temptation, because the script and lyrics so very funny and the characters such easily categorizeable types, is to play “Spelling Bee” strictly for laughs — go big and then go home.

But Sousa’s bunch seem to have delved pretty deeply into who their characters are, beyond the simple stereotypes, and created layers of pain and pathos to balance all the humor, which runs the gamut from subtle to slapstick. While never seeming tethered, each of the characters — both the spellers themselves and the three just-as-quirky adults administering the competition — is played with a refreshing sense of restraint, earning an empathy from the audience that makes all the peccadilloes and punch lines seem even funnier.

What’s always interesting in Key City shows — this one perhaps even moreso because it’s that relatively rare commodity, a musical — is the mix of fairly heavy hitters, regional and national-quality players, mixed in with the local talent, some of it still wet behind the ears. It’s fun to see how Quimper kids like Joey Ripley, Leah Finch and Austin Krieg blend in with New York-based actor Marcy Girt and Equity actor Anthony Phillips in the sung, danced and improvised air of “Spelling Bee.”

They hold their own. Beautifully. As the insecure and overcompensating William Barfee (that’s Bar-FAY, please), Ripley earns smiles and laughs with his every facial expression and delivery, even the most understated ones. Finch is wonderfully, tightly wound as the used-to-winning Marcy Parks. And Krieg finds an affable, admirable balance of the childlike daffiness and will to please that make up Leaf — a character who’s been overdone to distraction in other productions I’ve seen.

Another PT native and KCPT regular, Christa Holbrook, is lovely and conflicted as Olive, and serves up some of the show’s most boffo vocals. Tomoki Sage, a highlight of last summer’s Shakespeare in the Park mounting of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” keeps his Mitch Mahoney pertty low-key, but does manage a couple of celebratory acrobaticalist moves. Recent PT transplant Kenn Mann also underplays the sardonic Doug Panch, so that when his “issues” finally overcome him, it’s all the funnier. Maggie Jo Bulkley, who made her Key City debut in “Midsummer,” brings an all-star lisp and an almost painfully awkward precociousness to Logainne.

Phillips has, for my two cents, the most thankless role in the show, as Chip, the reigning champion who’s battling not only the other contestants, but his own raging adolescent libido in his efforts to defend. Every time I’ve seen “Spelling Bee,” the character’s solo number, “Chip’s Lament,” has been a show-stopper in the worst possible way. Perhaps an attempt by Feldman to up the edginess quotient of the show, it seems out of place and, strangely and ironically, flaccid. Phillips does his best with it (as all the other Chips from my experience have done), but it continues to strike me as cringe-inducing at best, momentum-busting at worst.

Girt is the eye of this hilarious hurricane, and still manages to be funny and sympathetic in her own right. A former Putnam County champ herself, her Rona has allowed the bee to be her defining event, and she’s so invested she can’t help berating the contestants one minute and rooting for them the next.

The message — basically, it takes all kinds to fill the freeways, so drive the way you drive — is brandished throughout the show, but never in a heavy-handed fashion. There’s lots of physicality on the part of just about everyone, which, combined with all that spelling, makes for a full night’s work.

If you’re inclined, you can be one of several audience members at each performance who are called on stage as contestants — or, more accurately, cannon fodder for Panch’s snarky lines. The competition is rigged, so you’ll be back in your seat by intermission.

All of the “Spelling Bee” incarnations I’ve seen have been funny. This is the first, I think, that I could also describe as “endearing.” It’s a show where a lot of things can go wrong, but Key City’s got most everything right.

“Spelling Bee” Brings Laughter, Song, and Pan-de-mon-ium to Key City Public Theatre

On her choice of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, KCPT Artistic Director Denise Winter comments, “The theme of this musical, which centers on diverse individuals finding success in their own quirky ways, seems particularly relevant to Port Townsend, a place where talent abounds and ‘weirdness’ is welcome. In recent years we have focused on small cast cabaret musicals, a genre in which we excel. It’s now time to return to a larger ensemble musical that showcases KCPT ‘song and dance’ performers on a grander scale.”

Called “irresistible, riotously funny and remarkably ingenious” by the New York Times when it opened on Broadway in 2005, Spelling Bee is a Tony Award winning musical comedy that follows six middle-school overachievers as they navigate the chaos of their local spelling bee competition.

Overseen by a group of adults, who have barely escaped adolescence themselves, this group of misfits overcome a series of increasingly outlandish trials before revealing the true lesson of the play: winning isn’t everything and losing doesn’t always make you a loser.

The KCPT ensemble includes many familiar faces, including Leah Finch, whose performance in Spelling Bee marks her first return to KCPT since Bark! The Musical, Port Townsend’s own Joey Ripley and Christa Holbrook, Marcy Girt, the standup comic from NYC, Austin Krieg, who was nominated Best High School Actor by Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, and, fresh off of their performances in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Maggie Bulkley, Anthony Phillips, Kenn Mann and everybody’s favorite acrobaticalist Tomoki Sage!

The “play” behind the play

Borne out of playwright Rebecca Feldman’s play C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E that she developed with her New York based improv group, The Farm, Spelling Bee carries with it much of the energy and enthusiasm of improvised acting.

While crafting her own take on the play, director Amy E. Sousa emphasized this element of free expression. Her ensemble of young adult actors was encouraged to develop their own unique take on their middle school-aged characters through improvisation, play, and ultimately, the exploration of their personal memories from adolescence.

Sousa explains, “The format in which Spelling Bee is written allows for so much creativity and flexibility in how to explore the world of the story. It’s fun for audiences to know that many of the improvised elements, local references, and interactions that they see are unique to this production.”

This semi-improvised air is brought most to life when audience members are invited to join the show as on-stage spellers.

The Wall Street Journal called Spelling Bee, “that rarity of rarities, a super-smart musical that is also a bona fide crowd-pleaser,” and the KCPT production, with its inspired acting, musical direction from Linda Dowdell, choreography by Denise Winter, and costume design by Tamara Halligan, aims to live up to that reputation by making audiences of all ages laugh, sing, and, in the end, maybe even show off their own spelling skills!

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Key City Public Theatre from October 1st through October 25th. Thursday, Friday, Saturday shows are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday shows are at 2:30 p.m. Tickets ($20 on Thursday/Sunday, $24 on Friday/Saturday, $10 for students any performance) are available at keycitypublictheatre.org or at the playhouse box office, 419 Washington Street, Port Townsend, 360-385-KCPT. Teachers interested in bringing student groups should call the box office for group discounts and sponsored ticket options.

The production sponsor for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is Washington State University. Season sponsors are Port Townsend Fudge Company, Alchemy Bistro & Wine Bar, and SOS Printing. Pay-what-you-wish performances (October 4th & 8th) are sponsored by the Port Townsend Arts Commission.

Written by Rebecca Feldman,
Music and lyrics by William Finn
A book by Rachel Sheinkin (and additional material by Jay Reiss)
Directed by Amy E. Sousa
Musical Direction by Linda Dowdell
Choreography by Denise Winter
  • Maggie Bulkley – Logainne 
  • Leah Finch – Marcy
  • Marcy Girt – Rona 
  • Christa Holbrook- Olive
  • Austin Krieg – Leaf
  • Anthony Phillips – Chip
  • Kenn Mann – Panch
  • Joey Ripley – William
  • Tomoki Sage – Mitch