By Kevin Zimmerman
During the last decade—well, pre-“Hamilton”—Broadway developed a subgenre of seemingly lightweight musicals which touched upon surprisingly deep truths.
“Avenue Q” and its R-rated puppetry explored the pain of finding your place in the world. The meta-musical “[title of show]” followed four characters as they saw their dreams come true before the audience’s eyes. And “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” showed how a group of tweens struggle with disappointment and setbacks as they fight to find their voices.
To close its current season, the Astoria Performing Arts Center has mounted a delightful, fun version of “Spelling Bee,” with some stellar performances.
As former spelling champion and current emcee, Lindsie VanWinkle beautifully captures the personality of an individual clinging to—and constantly reminding everyone of—her past glories.
VanWinkle also brings a gorgeous singing voice to the stage, especially when pulling double duty as the self-centered, absentee mother of contestant Olive Ostrovsky, an equally glorious Becca Andrews, in “The I Love You Song.”
Billy Lowrimore as comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney—who provides a juice box and encouraging words to eliminated spellers—possesses one of the most magnificent singing voices heard on a Queens stage in quite some time.
And, while it would be easy to play Mitch, who is performing the community-service element of his parole at the bee, as a cartoon thug Lowrimore grounds Mitch in reality and finds the humor in the role organically.
Matt Welsh wrings plenty of laughs out of his role as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who is returning to the bee after some sort of mental breakdown. Welsh also has most of the funniest lines as the official word pronouncer and definition provider. When one of the spellers receives the word “cow” and asks for a definition, Welsh responds, “It’s a cow.”
Director Dev Bondarin keeps the evening humming along with the right mix of straight humor with a side of pathos. She has opted to split the usual one-act show into two with a 10-minute intermission and this new version works just as well without a loss of momentum.
Tim McMath’s set has perfectly nailed the fictional Putnam County’s middle school gym/auditorium complete with basketball hoops and championship pennants hanging from the rafters.
If You Go
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”
When: Through May 28
Where: Astoria Performing Arts Center, Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent St., Astoria
Contact: (718) 395-1575
Reach News Editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at kzimm