“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”: a comedic experience

Those precocious kids we love to hate are played for laughs as they reveal an arsenal of emotional damage in Island Theatre Workshop’s (ITW) production of the musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

The Tony award-winning show, which ran on Broadway from 2005 to 2008, features an assortment of adolescent misfits vying for first prize in their regional spelling bee. The competition is led by a couple of ill-adjusted adults whose quirks and neuroses, along with those of the six competitors, are elucidated under the extreme pressure of the competition.

Under the expert direction of Taffy McCarthy, this extended one-act show moves briskly along. Kudos to Ms. McCarthy for her selection of a piece that is not overly ambitious in its emotional scope nor too reliant on its subtlety. Instead, the audience is treated to a perfectly fun and funny ensemble — a great vehicle for some exceptional local singing and acting talent. The show hinges on the kids’ (and adults’) collective angst as well as their individual eccentricities, and all the cast members do a terrific job of flaunting their maladjustments, while managing to transcend stereotypes.

Rykerr Maynard plays a nerdy Boy Scout whose budding sexuality proves to be his downfall. Nolan Burke portrays the easygoing Leaf whose self-esteem suffers from his hippy parents’ discouragement. Katie Mayhew plays Marcy, the perfect over-achieving snob. Jane Loutzenhiser shines in her Vineyard stage debut as the lisping, budding activist Logianne — the somewhat confused product of unconventional parenting. Becky Williams (daughter of Martha Hudson, who portrays the Bee leader Rona Lisa Peretti) is a sweet, bookish girl who longs for the attention of her absentee parents. Jesse Seward proves himself a master of physical comedy as the geeky, overly confident and somewhat obnoxious William Barfee, whose own mother finds his obsession with science a little weird.

Jamie Alley (vice principal Douglas Panch) scores some of the show’s biggest laughs with his pitch-perfect, deadpan delivery, as he illustrates words by using them in comically inspired sentences. Martha Hudson nicely avoids what could be a hackneyed portrayal of an uptight teacher, and adds to the comedy with her over-the-top soprano singing. ITW veteran Kevin Ryan plays ex-con Mitch Mahoney, a tough guy who has been recruited to comfort the losers, and sends them on their way with consolation juice boxes. He also does double duty in a fantasy sequence, a duet with Ms. Hudson as they play Olive’s parents, which provides one of the show’s most tender moments.

In a unique twist, pre-selected audience members fill out the roster of spellers. Each gets a funny personalized introduction and the chance to test their spelling faculties with words ranging in difficulty from cow to phylactery. Cast members also make occasional forays off the stage, and periodically point out “family members” in the audience, further blurring the line between reality and theater.

In the vocal department, the women really shine. Ms. Mayhew brings her huge talent for showmanship and classic Broadway warbling to the production. Ms. Loutzenhiser’s lung capacity is extraordinary. And Becky Williams’ sweet and expressive voice perfectly suits her shy, sympathetic character. Her singing sneaks up and grabs you with quiet strength and polished control.

The men, alternatively, provide some of the show’s more outrageous moments. Mr. Seward is a bundle of simultaneously brawny and klutzy energy, while Mr. Maynard’s solo, delivered from the audience, provides a touch of bawdy humor to the show (parents of young children beware). Mr. Burke plays the one character without a plethora of personality, and he does a nice job of counteracting the other contestant’s excessiveness.

While all performances — both singing and acting —are top notch, it’s Ms. McCarthy’s expert choreography that really shines. Twitches, preteen awkwardness, and ADD body language are incorporated neatly into the constant motion of the piece. The array of musical numbers are truly a joy to watch — the stage is filled with rollicking adolescent energy and fun dance moves — all perfectly polished and delivered with faultless fluidity.

“The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee” is sublime, silly summer fun that, despite its subject matter, never degenerates into pure adolescent humor (though it sometimes comes pretty close).

Performances of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” continue this and next Thursday–Sunday evenings (through Aug. 8) at 8 pm at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $20. For more information call 508-737-8550.