A review of Spelling Bee

by David Pierce
 

The cast of Spelling Bee.

Iowa City – Delightful. Causing delight, charming. Used in a sentence: The Iowa City Community Theatre’s (ICCT’s) production of The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee, playing February 27 and 28 and March 1, 6, 7, 8 at the Johnson County Fairgrounds is absolutely delightful.

Delightful. D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L
I did that without even using my magic foot, writing it on my arm, saying it to myself, or any of the other spelling tricks the characters in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee use to spell the challenging (and sometimes not so challenging) words they’re given in their quest to be the champion of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Where to begin when talking about  a production this good? How about with this: The characters in the play are caricatures, stereotypes used to convey a quick impression. In the hands of an unskilled cast, that could be a bad thing. But in the hands of this cast, those stereotypes become living, breathing human beings, human beings with hopes and dreams and fears and worries. In the hands of this cast, you quickly see past the stereotype to the person within.

I’m reluctant to single out individual performers, because how can I mention one without mentioning them all? They’re all that good and I don’t want to leave anyone out. If I mention the youthful joy Brett Borden brings to his performance as Leaf, I have to mention the wonderfully sleazy quality Mike Wilhelm brings to Vice-Principal Panch. If I mention the absolutely perfect voice crack Jon Davies has at the end of the song about his erection, I need to mention the wonderful way Stephanie Fahey handled acting (and the even harder task of singing) with a lisp. If I mention Krista Neumann’s deft handling of the enthusiasm of the former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa or the impressive way John Bednarik was able to switch between three very distinct characters while still keeping each of them distinct, I have to mention Lindsay Raasch’s beautiful singing voice. I even feel like I should mention members of the orchestra by name, though if I did it would all boil down to ‘they played really well’.
Adam Nardini in Spelling Bee

But even with all that, there are two performers I do want to single out. This is a funny play, a very
funny play. But it takes a turn in the second act, at which point it becomes a very emotional and heartfelt play. I wasn’t expecting it after the laughter of first act, and it raised the production from one that I thought was very, very good to one that I think is great. That jump from very, very good to great is due to Adam Nardini and Emmy Lane Palmersheim.

Nardini plays William, a nerdy, disease-prone loner with a nerdy, nervous energy that seemed like it could overwhelm him at any moment. Watching him use his magic foot to spell out words can’t help but make you smile and clap. But it’s when he’s slowly realizing how much he’s growing to like Palmersheim’s Olive, not just as someone to be attracted to but as the friend he has always longed for, that his acting really stands out. It’s a subtle thing, but the finest acting is often done in the subtlest moments.
And Palmersheim. Wow. I was stunned to read in the program that she was still in high school. Her singing voice is not that of a high school student. Her song – each of the main spellers have their own song – was probably the single best thing in a show filled with great things. It was amazing. It’s worth seeing the show a second time just to see her sing that song again. It was hands down, without a doubt, excellent. And if you know me, you know ‘excellent’ is not a word I throw around a lot.
That excellence carried over into all parts of the production. The set and lighting were simple but effective. The pace of the production was spot on, never dragging, always flowing. The jokes that were written specifically for Iowa City or specifically about recent events – there was a left shark shout out, which I think only I laughed at and applauded (stupid right shark crowd) – were funny, some of the funniest stuff in a very funny show. You don’t get a production this good without a good director leading the way, and Kenneth Van Egdon must be commended for the work he did as director.
If I really wanted to, could I find things to nitpick? Yeah. You can always find things to nitpick. But I don’t want to do so. Nothing I could name ever pulled me away for a moment from the production as a whole. Not to mention that at the Fairgrounds, you can never be certain if a singing voice not projecting as well as it could is a result of the singer, the performance space, or, I have to reluctantly admit, my aging ears. No, you’ll get pulled into this show the moment the lights go down, and you’ll laugh a lot, maybe tear up a little, and love every minute of it.
Everyone. Every person, everybody. Used in a sentence: Everyone should go see this show.
Everyone. E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E
ICCT’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, continues today at 2 pm and  next weekend as well, March 6, 7, 8 at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. For ticket information, go here.
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