The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Barrington Stage Company in Sheffield, Massachusetts, is presenting the world premiere of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee now through August 1st in their Stage II space at the Consolati Performing Arts Center. Although much attention is focused on the production due to the contributions of composer/lyricist William Finn, dramatizing the pre-pubescent angst of a run-off in the high-stakes National Spelling Bee didn't originate with him.
Rebecca Feldman conceived, directed and performed in C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, the genesis of Spelling Bee created by her improvisational group The Farm. Wendy Wasserstein, who saw the show because her nanny Sarah Saltzberg was - and still is - one of the performers, is attributed with the inspiration of bringing Finn and Feldman together.
Though not as personal as Falsettos or Elegies, Finn's quirky style suits the material well. His uniqueness is put to best use when he tells a good story and loads it with unexpected specificity. No one could better musicalize the burdens of an overachiever ("I Speak Six Languages"), the intense care and feeding of a little prodigy by her two dads ("Woe is Me") or the undoing of a former champion ("My Unfortunate Erection").
Once committed to the project, Finn enlisted a crack team of musical theatre practitioners from NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program where he teaches a master class. Book writer Rachel Sheinkin, now an adjunct faculty member, took on the task of fleshing out the material and shaping it into a geeky version of A Chorus Line.
Also signed on for the duration are fellow alumnus and recent Finn collaborators Vadim Feichtner (Elegies, Infinite Joy) as music director / dance arranger and Carmel Dean (Elegies) as vocal arranger and associate music director.
This creative team, along with co-director Michael Unger (sharing the task with Feldman) and choreographer Dan Knechtges, keep the contest moving along with a nice ebb and flow as the characters' back stories weave into the events onstage.
(l to r) Celia Keenan-Bolger, Robb Sapp, Dan Fogler, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Sarah Saltzberg and (bottom center) Deborah S. Craig
Surprisingly, there's still a delightful improvisational element to the piece. Audience members, chosen as they arrive at the theatre, join the cast on stage to round out the number of contestants. Jay Reiss (another original cast member), Lisa Howard and Derrick Baskin as the Vice Principal, Guidance Counselor and "Comfort Counselor" in charge of the contest adroitly dispatch these extra players without knowing how many rounds it may take to eliminate them.
The third holdover from the original production still appearing onstage is the amazing Dan Fogler. Sometimes invoking the spirit of Bobcat Goldwaith, his little William Barfee worms his way into our hearts like the sorriest looking puppy on his last possible day of reprieve at the pound.
But that's not to say that we only root for the unfortunate Barfee, praying that he won't be felled by another "peanut in the brownies" incident. The great fun of the piece is that we have reason to root for each and every one of them, and our allegiances switch around, especially as we catch glimpses of the best and worst of "modern parenting" shaping these kids behind the scenes.
But while the "Comfort Counselor" (an ex-con doing community service) is a hoot, the other two adults running the contest aren't so engaging when their foibles are exposed. A little more of the parents and a little less of the guidance counselor and vice principal would be my suggestion. My only other quibble is with the coda; although fun, it's an overused device.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee produced by Barrington Stage Company (Julianne Boyd, artistic director) now through August 1 on Stage II of the Consolati Performing Arts Center in Sheffield MA. The performance schedule is Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:30pm with matinees at 3:00pm on Sundays. On the final weekend there will be a 3:00pm matinee on Saturday, July 31st and no evening performance on Sunday, August 1st.
The Box Office at the Consolati Theatre opens an hour before show times. All other times use the Sheffield box office just off Main Street in the center of Sheffield, opposite the Post Office. Tickets are also available by calling 413-528-8888 or online at www.barringtonstageco.org.