|By Mary C. Cusack|
Over the Ledge scores with heartbreaking, hilarious musical comedy
It seems like productions of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” are outnumbering actual spelling bees lately. But if you’re concerned that Over the Ledge Theatre Co.’s production of the show will be just another adaptation, your fears are completely unfounded. The committed cast and cute script will have you completely hooked by the second musical number.
Director Rick Dethlefsen, who directed Over the Ledge’s previous production, “The 39 Steps,” is two-for-two in crafting productions that don’t simply pander for easy laughs, but include the audience in the joke with a wink and a nod. “Putnam” is an excellent choice for the fledgling theater company because the script is malleable, allowing for the inclusion of up-to-the-minute cultural references. This allows Over the Ledge to craft a hip persona worthy of drawing audiences to its remote location at the Ledges Playhouse in Grand Ledge.
The crew has taken full advantage of the venue, while overcoming any challenges the rustic space presents. The cavernous barn had the potential to present audio issues, but Joe Dickson’s sound design makes every syllable, spoken and sung, clear as a bell.
The script is quirky and fun, a simple feel-good piece with a modicum of depth. The title sums it up well: this is a county-wide spelling bee set in a middle school, with each participant a pre-pubescent stereotype manifesting the various hopes and doubts we all possess. Moderating the contest is former spelling bee champ Rona Lisa Peretti (Angela Lett) and vice principal Douglas Panch (Doak Bloss).
Lett and Bloss play off each other well. Lett’s Peretti takes the contest seriously, giving gravitas to ridiculous and embarrassing facts about each contestant as she introduces them. Bloss’ Panch, however, recognizes the absurdity of the contest and the contestants. A master of comedic timing, Bloss has the audience silently begging contestants to ask for a word to be used in a sentence, if only to bask in his dry delivery and cutting looks. Panch would obviously rather spend his Saturday organizing his sock drawer than be here.
As Olive Ostrovsky, a contestant who lacks a parental support system, Shantel Hamilton turns in yet another outstanding performance. Hamilton is a fixture in local musicals, and possesses a chameleon-like ability to shift maturity and age levels. Her wide-eyed innocence and optimism in this role gives “Putnam” its most powerful punch. Hamilton is charming in her earnestness and heartbreaking in her loneliness.
Ian S. Henretty flawlessly flips from dopey semi-savant Leaf Coneybear to the cutthroat father of fellow contestant Logainne Schwartzandgrunenierre (Abigail English). With a cast of adults playing goofy, overachieving children, it would be easy to overlook Henretty’s skilled performance.
Ben English, as Boy Scout Chip Tolentino, gets the best number. Chip experiences the singular most embarrassing of pre-pubescent male conditions — you know, the kind that a microphone stand can’t hide. His ode to the incident, “Chip’s Lament,” is the audience’s delight, and English nails it. The song, that is.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee