A Paper Mill Spelling Bee With Feeling
Also see Bob's review of The Little Dog Laughed
The student competition is set in a gymnasium at a middle school in Putnam County, New York, where six students (played by adults) and, briefly, three audience members compete to win the right to complete in the "national" spelling bee.
Most of the six students have broadly drawn, largely unhappy histories which are largely played for laughs, but, eventually, they engage our sympathy and involvement. There is an uncomfortable dichotomy inherent in Rachel Sheinkin's book, between the comically caricatured nerdiness and callowness of the youngsters and the sympathy and respect which such youths deserve. Happily, for this production, director Marc Bruni has toned down the broad comic exaggeration of the Broadway Circle in the Square edition and created a more emotionally satisfying Spelling Bee.
The redoubtable James Lapine, director of the Second Stage production and its Broadway transfer, seemed to have punched the material up, creating a gag-laden, lightweight entertainment. The commercial success of his efforts is undeniable. However, the now well established musical benefits from the somewhat less frenzied touch applied by Bruni. Bruni still employs the aisles and a ramp around the front of the stage to incorporate the Paper Mill auditorium into the gymnasium setting, and his production nicely fills its larger confines.
The entire cast is well up to the task at hand. Will Blum portrays William Barfee (he is disregarded as he informs one and all that his name is pronounced "Bar-fay") who visualizes how to spell his words by spelling them out in comic dance-like movements with his "magic foot." Overweight and suffering a mucus membrane disorder, the hurting Barfee is a boastful and disagreeable nerd. Blum smoothly portrays Barfee's flowering as he responds in kind to the warmth shown him by another contestant, Olive Ostrovsky.
Brandon Yanez nicely captures the comic frustration of Chip Tolentino. A well-adjusted smarty, Chip expects to repeat his victory of the previous year's bee until, aroused by a girl in the audience, he violates a rule while correcting a spelling. His ensuing upset is overcome when he realizes the benefit of his budding manhood. Lyle Colby Mackston smoothly rounds out the trio of boy contestants as Leaf Coneybear, the family underachiever who comes to recognize that he is smart and really belongs in the contest.
Ephie Aardema is on target as the frazzled Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the lisping daughter being raised by her two competitive gay dads who try to lead her to victory by any means possible. The two most interesting contestant roles fall to Olivia Oguma as Marcy Park and Ali Stroker as Olive Ostrovsky. The charming Oguma's Park is the best speller in the contest (she competed strongly in the Nationals last year), but she is depressed by the extreme pressure to succeed in all endeavors to which she is subjected by her extraordinarily demanding parents. Although no mention is made of her ethnicity, it seems implicit that Park is from a stereotypical Asian (Korean?) family, and her situation calls to mind the widely discussed book by Amy ("no play dates") Chua, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." While there will certainly be differing opinions on this issue, it is too facile to snappily depict Park painlessly finding joy and liberation by purposely misspelling a word (the parochial school girl Park receives a visitation from Jesus in which he flippantly gives her the okay to dump the contest). I cannot help but wonder whether author Sheinkin would ever approve of herself or any children in her family doing such a thing.
Ali Stroker is most engaging as the perky, but unhappy, Olive Ostrovsky. Neglected by her self-centered parents (her mother is fulfilling herself in India and her father is too busy to attend the bee). It merits noting that Stroker is confined to a wheelchair because the presence of an actress with a disability portraying Ostrovsky actually enhances Spelling Bee. It ties in well with dialogue relating to a teacher's surprise that she has arrived for the spelling bee alone. Most importantly, it deftly reminds us that children, accomplished children, come with a full range of abilities and disabilities, and makes this production more involving, realistic, involving, all-encompassing and compassionate than it otherwise would be.
The roles of the three adults administering the bee also combine humor and angst. Teacher-host Rona Peretti (Marla Mindelle), Bee Director-Vice-Principal Douglas Patch (David Volin), and ex-convict performing Community Service, Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney (Jerold E. Solomon) are each very well played. There are very disturbing aspects to the light treatment and (here is that word again) facile redemption granted to Patch by Sheinkin's book.
It is doubtful as to whether anyone ever exited Spelling Bee humming any tunes from William Finn's slight, serviceable score, but his lyrics well complement Sheinkin's book. Wendy Seyb nicely incorporates Stroker into her pleasant choreography. Anna Louizos' adequate set incorporates space for the small on-stage and, at most times, out of sight orchestra.
While this review provides sufficient information to warn off more conservative parents who might have different standards, Chip Tolentino's "stiffy" and one or two truly unnecessary swear words notwithstanding, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a delightful fun show for school children of all ages.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues performances (Evenings.: Wednesday, Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday, Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees.: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm) through February 13, 2011, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Conceived by Rebecca Feldman; directed by Marc Bruni. Produced in association with Philadelphia Theatre Company