The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, an ingratiating musical which really does deserve the appellation "comedy," may become the Stomp of the 21st century. Consider this: the original production has been playing since 2005 at Circle in the Square in New York, there's an open-ended run at the Drury Lane Theatre/Water Tower Place in Chicago, and there's also the national tour, which is playing at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis through May 20. When the rights become available to school and community theatres, I predict this show will become a perennial to rival You Can't Take it With You and Nunsense.
The basic setup in Spelling Bee is A Chorus Line meets Tony and Tina's Wedding meets You Bet Your Life. The backbone of the story is provided by the six middle school students competing on-stage in the eponymous contest. The spelling action is interspersed with musical interludes during which they tell us who they are and what they want (and isn't that the very definition of a "book song"?). Several guest spellers chosen from the audience also compete on stage, and celebrity spellers have been included at some performances (although not the night I attended). Three adults supervise the proceedings: Rona Lisa Peretti, a former champion turned real estate agent; the amusingly-named Vice Principal Douglas Panch; and Mitch Mahoney, who is working off his court-ordered community service by serving as official Comfort Counselor.
Spelling Bee capitalizes on the American fascination with this type of contest: the Scripps National Spelling Bee is televised on ESPN and references have turned up everywhere from Frazier to The Simpsons to Saturday Night Live. I've never quite understood the appeal: everyone knows English spelling is quirky, but isn't that what dictionaries and spell-checkers are for? Perhaps the attraction lies in the absolute nature of the contest: unlike real life, in a spelling bee each person's effort is either correct or incorrect and there are no shades of interpretation or points of dispute allowed. The inherent drama in a single-elimination contest also makes a great organizing device for a play, and the bee is a flexible form whose selection of words can be adapted to each evening's venue and guest contestants. The definitions and example sentences, as well as the biographies supplied for the contestants, also offer an wide range of humorous possibilities.
Each of the cast spellers is a well-known type, although several have a distinctively 21st-century twist. Olive Ostrovsky is a shy girl whose best friend is her dictionary. After spelling "chimerical" she conjures up an image of her absent parents, the father who is always working and the mother who is busy becoming more spiritually evolved at an ashram in India. William Barfee is plagued by a peanut allergy and a surname which is constantly mispronounced just as you imagine it would be. He uses his "magic foot" to spell words and shows excellent dancing ability as well (this is the role for which Dan Fogler won a 2005 Tony Award). Marcy Park suffers from the heavy expectations of being the perfect Asian over-achiever; when she is able to break out of this mold, she reveals herself to be the finest dancer in the troupe. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre is something of a nervous wreck as she is constantly trying to please her two dads (named "Schwartz" and "Grubenierre"), both of whom impress upon her the importance of being a winner. Leaf Coneybear is the offspring of hippies and sweetly tries to please everyone without having a great deal of brain power at his disposal. Chip Tolentino, the previous year's champion, discovers that puberty can interfere with one's ability to concentrate on intellectual matters.
I was not expecting to like Spelling Bee as much as I did: the whole kids-playing-adults thing tends to get on my nerves, and the broad stereotypes seemed like they might become grating as well. However, this is a show that just keeps on coming like a perky little puppy, and my resistance was soon broken. It's certainly not Hamlet, or even Cabaret, but it does supply a pleasant evening at the theatre. The jokes are funny, the pace lively, and the characterizations touching. Even the songs, which seemed simplistic at first, became more ingratiating as the evening wore on. By the time the sacred heart of Jesus appeared, I was a thoroughly converted fan.
The music and lyrics are not Finn's most sophisticated (he won the Tony for Best Original Score for Falsettos in 1992) but they are effective and suitable. In fact, those two adjectives apply to almost everything about Putnam County: the set by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Jennifer Caprio, lighting design by Natasha Katz, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, choreography by Dan Knechtges, and direction by James Lapine. None of the technical elements are particularly memorable, but they all serve the show well. The real standout in Spelling Bee is the book by Rachel Sheinkin (after a concept by Rebecca Feldman, with additional material by Jay Reiss), which won the Tony for Best Book of a Musical in 2005.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be performed at the Fox Theatre in Saint Louis through May 20. Ticket information is available from the Fox Box Office at 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com. The next production at the Fox will be Disney's The Lion King, which will be presented June 21-July 29.