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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Just because you remember your childhood as simple doesn't mean it was. Nostalgia's hard to overcome as life grows increasingly complex, but might not a time machine show you that the "good old days" you remember weren't really that good after all?

Until someone invents a real time machine, we'll have to settle for the musical variety. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which just opened at Second Stage, is so dripping with childhood angst and insecurity that it could easily pass for another stage show based on Charles Schulz's Peanuts. But the show is wrapped up in so many good feelings and huge laughs that you'll have to just sit back, grin, and recall the trials and tribulations of your own youth.

Rachel Sheinkin's book (from an original conception by Rebecca Feldman) about six young championship spellers so astutely captures the pains of adolescence that it's difficult to not find at least one person you can relate to: Over-achiever Marcy Park (Deborah S. Craig), unnoticed-child-in-big-family Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), the sickly William Barfee (Dan Fogler), the sad and lonely Olive Ostrovsky (Celia Keenan-Bolger), reigning Bee champ Chip Tolentino (Jose Llana), and activism-inclined Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Saltzberg) all seem both impossibly quirky and resolutely familiar.

Sheinkin's treatment of the story of what happens to these kids, and their faculty overseers, during the Bee will keep you shaking your head in recognition while you're convulsing with laughter. It's difficult to ask much more of a musical comedy. Well, with the exception of fine musical numbers, and that's where The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs astray. William Finn has not matched in his songs the thorough psychoanalysis that Sheinkin has devised. Finn's songs are always attractive, melodic, and youthful in tone, so if he's never completely at sea in musicalizing these characters, he also never unveils the richness of his subjects here in quite the way he did in the Falsettos shows or A New Brain.

Most of his numbers come across as Brechtian interludes instead of fully integrated character material. So it's hard to connect emotionally to Fogler when he kicks up a lively vaudeville-influenced number about the "Magic Foot" that helps him spell words, or when Keenan-Bolger sings a six-minute fantasy rumination about the nurturing parents she doesn't have. Other songs, like the intrusively raucous "Pandemonium" (about the kids' mental anguish), Leaf's self-deprecating "I'm Not That Smart," or Marcy's "I Speak Six Languages" are more perfunctory than inspired. Only in the keening lament of one contestant eliminated early on does Finn tap into the unique comic voice that so defines Sheinkin's work.

The dutiful nature of Finn's score provides little impediment to enjoying the show; Sheinkin's writing and James Lapine energetic, school play-inspired direction carry the evening. Also making vital contributions are Beowulf Boritt's gymnasium set, Jennifer Caprio's colorful and character-rich costume designs, Natasha Katz's lighting, and Dan Knechtges's peppy choreography. And the six-piece band, playing Michael Starobin's orchestrations under Vadim Feichtner's musical direction, never sounds less than terrific.

But it's the actors who bring the characters to life that provide the real, memorable heart of the show, finding the adults within the children and, as necessary, the children within the adults. Ferguson, Keenan-Bolger, and Llana bring more polish and lovable eccentricity to the roles than do Craig, Fogler, and Saltzberg, who settle more easily into caricature. Still, the kids and their foibles (just try to resist Ferguson's bug-eyed spelling trances) provide almost unending fun. Derrick Baskin is fine as "comfort counselor" Mitch Mahoney (who provides a shoulder to cry on, and a consolatory juice box, to the ejected spellers), but Jay Reiss is even better as Douglas Panch, the word pronouncer who gets some of the evening's best lines. (One example of how he uses one word in a sentence: "The famed British playwright Joe Orton was considered quite the raconteur before being bludgeoned to death by his bald lover.")

Also excellent is Lisa Howard as Rona Lisa Peretti, the Bee's hostess and one-time champion. With a dry wit perfectly suited to the color commentary she provides (and her ad-libs for audience-volunteer spellers are often every bit as funny as Sheinkin's scripted barbs), she also provides a vital, sweet-natured connecting bridge between childhood and adulthood. More than anyone else, she seems best in tune with both the immature anxieties of her young charges and the world-weary rumblings her of her adult coworkers.

She's the clearest reminder of how the past is inextricably tied up with the present and future, and how they all form a vital part of who we are. This message is best driven home in the moving finale, in which the characters explain how the Bee changed their lives, and we see how one day really can prove vitally important. If The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee isn't life-changing theatre, it's at least the kind of warm, winning show we should be glad we don't currently have to wax nostalgic about.

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Second Stage Theatre
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Second Stage, 307 West 43rd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.246.4422