This Broadway World review by Neil Shurley was originally published on August 8th, 2022. Photo: Wallace Krebs.
Sometimes you see a show that is just pure joy.
That was my experience at THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, now playing at The Warehouse Theatre. From the exuberant performers to the stellar direction and infectiously simple choreography to the understated brilliance of the music, lyrics, and book, this show was a genuine joy to watch – and, for a chosen few, to participate in.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is exactly what it says on the label – a group of nine kids on stage to compete for the title of county spelling champion. The kids are played by six adult actors along with three audience members (don’t worry, they’re chosen in the lobby before the show – you won’t be asked to jump on stage from your comfy seat in the audience). The kids are asked in turn to spell words for the two judges: realtor and former spelling bee champ Rona (Miranda Barnett), and school vice principal Mr. Panch (Jayce T. Tromsness). As the show goes on, we learn more about the kids and hear some hilarious word definitions and usages.I really hate to say much more. This is a show that is so bright, cheerful, and fun that I want you to just go in and experience it without worrying too much about what it’s about or what to expect. Your only real expectation should be to have a good time, and I guarantee you will.
All of the performers are pitch perfect, starting with Barnett and Tromsness as the judges – Barnett is achingly severe while Tromsness’ dry delivery of the increasingly absurd example sentences is practically worth the price of admission alone. As for the actors playing the contestants, I loved Shelli Delgado’s droll understatement, Wesley Hudson’s withering glares and manic hoofing, Austin J. Kara’s preening overconfidence, Daniel Kushner’s nice guy sincerity, Molly Penny’s confused earnestness, and Clare Ruble’s hilarious overenthusiasm. On top of all that is DeBryant Johnson, wonderfully aloof as an adult “volunteer.” They all work great together and have an amazingly dynamic vocal harmony, with each of them also getting standout solo moments. As good as all of them are, though, Johnson’s vocals are simply astounding. Heck, you should go see this show just to hear him sing “Good Bye.”
Director Shelley Butler and a fantastic crew have created a dynamic, charming, and laugh-filled evening to close out Warehouse Theatre’s 2021-22 season. I could go on about the set and the lights and the great way the audience volunteers are incorporated into the ensemble, but I’d rather just have you experience it yourself. And when you do, look for me – I’m ready to see this show again. And again.