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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Wrapping a darker world under a layer of kooky, sunny fun, Putnam County would seem to mollify both older and younger audiences.

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At a recent performance of Apple Hill Playhouse's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, one remarkable aspect was the audience reaction.

A little background: Putnam is a musical conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with a book by Rachel Sheinkin (additional material from Jay Reiss), and William Finn providing words and music. It's the story of a small-town spelling bee, in which a handful of children (played by adult actors) compete for first prize. What makes Putnam such a popular show is that underneath its cutesy, somewhat twee, surface is a subtext of lost, excluded children doing the one thing they can think of to make their parents love them.

More background: Delmont's Apple Hill Playhouse, which turns 50 this year, straddles the same divide most community/summer theaters face. Theater audiences in general are older, and that's especially true for companies in outlying regions. The problem is programming: You can schedule a season for older subscribers, but that means younger people never find you. Or you can select work that'll be relevant to the under-40 crowd, but your regular supporters will stay away in droves. 

To put it another way: Some folks only want to see Oklahoma! and some want never to see it again.

Putnam County, which wraps a darker world under a layer of kooky, sunny fun, would seem to mollify both groups. But the elder Apple Hill audience wasn't so easily fooled. At least not at first, and their displeasure was palpable. Those kids on stage may look cute, but they're saying such grown-up things! Musicals should be about escape — not examination.

But eventually, and especially due to Finn's warm bear-hug of a score, the audience got onboard, and gave in to the proceedings. I can't say this low-energy and disjointed production was making any case for the cause, but I enjoyed Caitlin Young as the overachieving Marcy. Arielle Fodor sidestepped shtick and made the lisping, intense Logainne a full-bodied character. And after a hazy start, Rachel Nicely warmed up considerably as Olive, while Graham H. Greene calmed down and brought humanity to the role of William.

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