Theater Latté Da’s “Spelling Bee” is S-W-E-E-T and F-U-N

Theater Latte Da's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Photo by Michal Daniel.

It’s going to be hard to review Theater Latté Da’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” playing now through October 30th at the Ordway’s McKnight Theatre without giving away the laughs, so for the most part I’ll hold my tongue. Basically, my review is “It’s fun. Go see it.  And bring your kid brother.”

The show, first brought to Broadway in 2005, is a one-act musical comedy featuring a group of misfits (it’s amusing to compare how “normal” these actors look in real life compared to how tortured their characters look on stage) competing for the title of the “7 County Metro Area” Spelling Bee (Theater Latté Da kindly changes the title of the Broadway play to humor us Minnesotans).  The songs are endearing – perhaps a combination of the feeling of a cleaner and tamer version of “Avenue Q” and the musicality of “Into the Woods.”

The actors/singers are really stunning. I fell in love with Leaf Coneybear (played by North Central University senior Alan Bach), and Olive Ostrovsky (played by the stunning Cat Brindisi), and found myself rooting for them throughout the show.  Of course, I won’t tell you how they fare – even Latté Da doesn’t give that away, refusing to give audience members the song list for the show for fear that audience members would cheat to find out who doesn’t sing a song, and thus has spelled something wrong and been eliminated (of course, as a press person, I got a copy of the musical numbers, and I did cheat, and look ahead – sigh…).

The dance numbers were amusing and entertaining, my favorite being “Pandemonium,” starring the talented Brian Frutiger as Mitch Mahoney, the designated Comfort-giver, who is working for the school as his community service project while on parole.

Theater Latte Da's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Photo by Michal Daniel.

Emotionally, as someone who was a total dork – somewhere between book nerd and theater nerd from elementary school through high school, this play hit home in a real, and yet not too depressing way.  Although I found myself crying a bit during Cat Brindisi’s “The I Love You Song,” a reminder of how sometimes the way kids see the world is not as rosy as the world really is.

I’d be remiss to not also say that the audience participation was one of the best parts of the show, and the neat thing about it is that each performance will feature different audience participants (you can sign up before the show if you want a shot at coming up on stage and embarrassing yourself as a speller).  In our show (I can give this away, because it will be different for your show), one of the audience spellers was a balding, middle-aged man who surprised even the actor judges by spelling words they didn’t think he could, to our uproarious laughter and applause.

As a born and raised Minnesotan, I am quite embarrassed to say that this was my first Theater Latté Da performance and my first show in the Ordway’s small but warm McKnight Theatre.  It definitely won’t be my last for either.

Any disappointments, you ask?  My only disappointment is the result of my age.  I TOTALLY understand that Theater Latté Da was trying to cater to parents with young kids (the audience was filled with them) and as a result slightly toned down the Broadway show.  I don’t know the play enough to know how much.  I do know that the song “My unfortunate distraction” is actually called “My unfortunate erection” which makes SO much more sense once you see that song performed.  But would I want my (future) 10-year-old daughter to hear a song about an erection?  Perhaps not so much.

I actually think Latté Da may have taken a risk bringing this show to the stage, since even with the koshering up of some of the language (i.e. erection-distraction) the play could still have a few hot buttons for parents of young kids.  “Putnam County Spelling Bee” is unashamedly okay with gay parents (in fact, two out of the six kids have gay parents), and the show features Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre’s gay dads, as well as a reference to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  There’s also a mention of psychedelic drug use, but it’s brief, very funny, and probably went over the heads of everyone under 15 in the audience.

I still think that “Putnam County Spelling Bee” would be a great show for any family with kids (probably ideal age is 8-12), and even for young adults like myself who are a fan of musical theater and don’t yet have kids.  The lower price tag (even the best seats are just $35) helps too.

As I said I would, I’ve left out the spoilers in this review.  So head over to the Ordway’s website and buy yourself a pair (or quad) of tickets.  You won’t be disappointed.  And you’ll even have a little fun.

*The FTC made me do it: Disclosure of Material Connection: I received two tickets to “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” for free in the hope that I would mention it on TC Jewfolk. But getting the tickets for free doesn’t mean that I was obligated to give a glowing review. I wouldn’t recommend anything that I don’t think you’d enjoy. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Blah, blah, blah…