Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
But it speaks more to childhood memories than to actual children. The play's high-concept, role-playing terror of childhood stressors, vividly re-lived by adult actors, would become nearly meaningless if told by actual children. (But it's really funny, I swear.)
Couth and perdurable Stray Dog Theatre director Justin Been has got himself a very playful script and a perfect assortment of musical comedy actors who can pass for strangely tall ten-year-olds (or am I just getting shorter?). There are also three adult contest managers and four grown-up audience members to add tension to this delightful, intense, funny musical by William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book), and conceived by Rebecca Feldman. We are introduced to each child's awkward story through their pensive, private solos, which occasionally break out into glorious dreams for their futures. And then they are each put on the spot, again and again: asked to spell (usually) impossible-sounding words. There are also occasional curve-ball rules, and it all becomes a roller coaster ride in a rainstorm, where just holding on tight becomes impossible.
"How do they make that work?," my spouse asked, before the show. "Well, typically you cast slightly stockier actors, who can mold themselves into the proportions of a child," I explained. But that doesn't apply to every actor or actress, and only captures a narrow plurality of all the different onstage transmogrifications here. Examples of other metamorphoses include: the panicked discipline of the over-achiever; the high-handedness of a child in correcting other children; and a wary courtesy and suspicious deference to grown-ups, who wield outrageously difficult words I've never even heard of, along with one or two unexpected rules. Jason Meyers (still the funniest actor in St. Louis) is wickedly unhelpful as the assistant principal who quizzes these martyred waifs, and Stephanie Merritt is full of un-ironic-sounding ironic narration, as an ambitious real estate agent who serves as the organizer of the contest.
My favorite section is where time begins to slip, then go faster, then much slower, then much faster again, as the psychological trench warfare of the contest overwhelms us all. Kevin O'Brien is (yet again) a genius on stage, this time portraying the tormented William Morris Barfée. And Grace Langford is an absolute delight as Olive Ostrovsky, the girl who waits in vain for her father to show up to pay the entrance fee, and who unleashes her fantastic voice about 3/4 of the way through. In the supporting cast, I was most struck by Clayton Humburg, who is utterly changed as the grinning, delightfully offbeat Leaf Coneybear, a home-schooled boy who makes his own clothing. The level of trust and vulnerability and unselfconsciousness he shows is highly admirable, and strangely terrifying. The world can do terrible things to kids like that.
Kevin Corpuz is great (as always) as the proud over-achiever Charlito "Chip" Tolentino, and in other roles. The highly adept singer and choreographer Sara Rae Womack is quizzical in watching the others compete, when she's not rolling her eyes at a softball word to spell. And another performer who would be a leading lady anyplace else, Dawn Schmid, plays Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the prim elementary school president of her school's gay/straight alliance. Her two dads (Mr. Humburg and the surprisingly excellent Chris Kernan, usually seen only in the chorus) show increasing desperation, leading to shenanigans near the end.
Director Been puts an intermission halfway into it all, and the show clocks in at a little over two hours' length
A bumper crop of laughter is harvested from these fertile grounds for comedy. There were strangely a lot of microphone problems the night I went, but these strong-voiced musical comedy veterans were usually able to compensate. They're also adept dramatic performers, so there are (every five or ten minutes) these very odd, dark "soundings" from the depths of the subconscious, when we realize that so much of growing up involves simply overcoming the snide, grueling meaningless tests of adults, and the proud interference of all the other equally strange children around us.
The big dance fantasy near the end is surprisingly short in this production, though there's also a wonderfully improbable kick line, thanks to choreographer Michael Hodges. Funny, yes. But it also glints with all sorts of weird, darkly anguishing behaviors too, I swear.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through August 20, 2022, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis MO. For more information please visit www.straydogtheatre.org
Cast (in order of appearance)