There are two divergent styles of musicals these days. In one, the production itself is the star. It’s built around a huge set piece, like every species of the animal kingdom dancing on the Savannah, and the music and emotions are as oversized as the set. The other is almost a direct reaction to this and focuses on smaller events, with more character-driven plots and songs, and smaller, though no less pivotal or emotionally compelling, storylines. It’s the difference between a chamber orchestra and a full symphony. Luckily for us, some of the most creative and intriguing new musicals are being written in the smaller idiom, and one of the stars of the field, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is receiving a hysterical production at the Las Vegas Little Theatre.
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
- Through July 26
- Thur-Sat, 8 p.m.
- Las Vegas Little Theatre, 362-7996.
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss, Bee follows 10 students as they participate in, well, you can figure it out. Six of the students are cast members (all are great), and four audience members are chosen each night to compete as well. Yes, you too can relive the terrors of middle school. Each character is given a song to reveal character and explain motivations, but what could easily devolve into rote exposition shines under the abundance of well-honed jokes and meticulous character observations. For example, Chip Tolentino (played by James Grino), last year’s champ, loses his title defense when he is distracted by a girl in a tight sweater and misspells “tittup.” His grief is real, despite being hysterically delivered in a song entitled “My Unfortunate Erection.”
The cast is uniformly excellent, making the most of the outrageous characters up for portrayal. Among the adults, Keith Dotson, as comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, is in fine voice, and Kathleen Etor and Brian Scott as the teacher and vice-principal running the bee, respectively, keep things clipping along with humor and grace. But the “kids” are the true stars of the show, dysfunctions and all. In addition to Grino, Penni Mendez is hilariously uptight, and Christine de Chavez is no-nonsense until she snaps, while Cory Benway as Leaf Conneybear proves that even nature’s children can be smart. Joe Hynes and Amanda Kraft, as William Barfée and Olive Ostrovsky, are touching and funny, learning to flirt while showing off their spelling prowess. LVLT president Walter Niejadlik has directed one of the funniest, warmest shows you’ll see in Las Vegas this year.