The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Review by Adam Blair

Book by Rachel Sheinkin; conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Based on C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, an original play by The Farm
Music and lyrics by William Finn
Directed by James Lapine
Choreographed by Dan Knechtges
With Derrick Baskin, Deborah S. Craig, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Dan Fogler, Lisa Howard, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jose Llana, Jay Reiss, Sarah Saltzberg, Willis White, Lisa Yuen
Circle in the Square Theater, New York City

Spelling bees, like science fairs, are mother lodes of intensity, nerdiness and flop sweat, magnified a gazillion times by the travails of childhood and adolescence. Anyone who saw the film documentary Spellbound knows what I’m talking about: so much rides on the spellers’ ability to extract correct spellings from their memory banks, confounded not only by the hundreds of contradictory rules that make our language the mongrel that it is but also by a cultural landscape that, with the help of text messaging and wall-to-wall advertising, is threatening to turn “nite,” “citi” and “enuf” into real words.

The spellers in the film documentary and in the new musical, The 25 th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, earn our respect not just for their ability to master what may seem a useless skill in the age of computerized spell-checking, but for their own idiosyncratic versions of grace under pressure. Of course, the humor—and there’s a fair amount of it in Bee—comes from the times that grace deserts these characters, when the unfairness of spelling bees and life in general result in tantrums, meltdowns and self-pitying wails. For the audience, it’s the Mensa version of waiting for a NASCAR driver to spin out and hit the wall, a combination of thrill, schadenfreude and a little bit of guilt.

Musical theater turns out to be a great form for exposing the drama and the comedy of such a competition, as it allows its characters to confess and confide in the audience at precisely their moments of crisis. Bee’s freshness is accentuated by Rachel Sheinkin’s smart book, plus a well-directed (by James Lapine) ensemble of extremely talented performers, but despite the pleasures it provides it still feels incomplete and vaguely unsatisfying. It doesn’t help that, with no intermission, the 105-minute show feels a bit like a one-act stretched just far enough to wear out its welcome.

Another problem is the score (music and lyrics by the undeniably talented William Finn, author of Falsettos and A New Brain). On the plus side, the songs are lively, the lyrics are clever and they are certainly well-sung (credit to Michael Starobin’s orchestrations, which make the most of a small number of instruments, and Carmel Dean’s elegant vocal arrangements). But—and I feel like a Philistine for writing this—I not only didn’t leave the theater whistling the tunes, I barely remembered them. Finn’s gifts don’t include writing “catchy” melodies, the kind that have helped make Avenue Q, which Bee resembles somewhat in spirit, an enormous, Las Vegas-bound hit.

Bee often overcomes the songs’ lack of distinctiveness through the performing gusto of the cast, many of whom have been honing their characterizations through a variety of the play’s earlier incarnations. With adult actors playing children and adolescents, there’s always a danger of overplaying either the cuteness or the geekiness, but these singing actors resist both temptations. Credit to Lapine, who also directed the original Broadway production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, for the performers’ restraint and also for the skillful interweaving of the bee’s real-time reality with the memories and fantasies of the participants (Beowulf Boritt’s flexible set and Natasha Katz’s lighting are also key contributors).

Everyone will have their favorite speller. I felt for Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who proves that home schooling doesn’t exempt you from the taunts of your classmates—it’s his siblings who chide him for being dumb, and he’s out to prove that, in spelling at least, they are mistaken. And there’s Chip Tolentino (Jose Llana), whose small head takes over just when he needs to use his big head (his cry-of-pain song is titled “My Unfortunate Erection.”)

Their competitors include Deborah S. Craig’s overachieving Asian-American Marcy Park; über-nerd William Barfee (Dan Fogler), who must have left his pocket protector in his other shirt; lonely Olive Ostrovsky (Celia Keenan-Bolger), whose mother is finding herself in India while his father seethes and ignores his daughter; and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Saltzberg), the pressure-cooked child of two gay dads (even her pigtails, sticking out like horns, look way too tight).

The adults include ex-bee champion Rona Lisa Peretti (the lovely-voiced Lisa Howard) and Mitch Mahoney (Derrick Baskin), whose role as “comfort counselor” is part of his community service. Like the spellers, he knows first-hand that life, and spelling bees, are unfair. Quietly stealing the show is Jay Reiss as Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, whose deadpan delivery gives no help to the spellers but creates glee in the audience.

I saw Bee at the 2econd Stage Theatre (speaking of odd spellings), which has a proscenium stage, but it’s moving to Circle in the Square for an April 15 re-opening (presumably to vie for Tony Awards and to find a larger audience). I don’t know how the new theater’s configuration will affect the show, but these performers, like the spellers they play, have overcome bigger obstacles than theater in the round—or is that T-H-E-A-T-R-E?

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