The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Music and lyrics by William Finn. Book by Rachel Sheinkin. Conceived by Rebecca Feldman. Additional Material by Jay Reiss. Based on C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, an original play by The Farm. Original Broadway Cast Recording on Ghostlight Records. Directed by James Lapine. Choreographed by Dan Knechtges. Set design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Jennifer Caprio. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Music Director Vadim Feichtner. Vocal arrangements by Carmel Dean. Music Coordinator Michael Keller. Cast: Derrick Baskin, Deborah S. Craig, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Dan Fogler, Lisa Howard, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jose Llana, Jay Reiss, Sarah Saltzberg, Todd Buonopane, Kate Wetherhead, Willis White, Lisa Yuen.
Humor is just as plentiful, but most everything else is less spellbinding the second time around at The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. If you missed the show during its lauded engagement at Second Stage, you now have another chance to see one of the season's most laugh-packed musicals (the funniest to open on Broadway, at any rate). But the more compelling war of words than the one onstage at Circle in the Square is the one between H-I-T and T-R-A-N-S-F-E-R.
The new musical - conceived by Rebecca Feldman and with a book by Rachel Sheinkin and a score by William Finn - has remained virtually unchanged at the material level. It follows the spelling-influenced adventures of six wacky kids, thrust into the bee spotlight at a time in their lives when they're still trying to figure out exactly who they are and what they want from life. That each is somewhat ostracized from normality (as they see it), and as they're under the harsh eye and apparently unforgiving voice of a spelling announcer consigned to being as helpfully unhelpful as possible, only increases the stakes. Their futures really do seem to be on the line.
As the spellers are eliminated, the survivors and the losers make their quiet and often painful progression toward adulthood until, at the end of the show, there's nothing left to do but explain exactly how this one fateful day impacted all their lives. The musical's affecting final scene is a triumphant tribute to not just the victor, but to the art of competition and the glory of youth, in which - in many ways - anything goes, and everyone can be a winner. This remains on Broadway a powerful, pleasing message.
But though the Broadway production is superior in many respects (most of them technical), it's less earnest and less polished than it seemed Off-Broadway, lacking much of the cutting earnestness that gave it what heart it had. While many shows (Caroline, or Change being a recent, highly visible example) can use time between mountings to fix problems, most of Spelling Bee's issues have not been sufficiently adjusted.
That's most notable in Finn's score, which is attractively adolescent in its worldview (including songs like "I'm Not That Smart," "My Friend, the Dictionary," and "I Speak Six Languages") but only theatrically ornamental. Only the title song, the singing of the competition's rules, and the hormone-inspired lament by an eliminated unlock any musical storytelling possibilities for the show; the other numbers feel like time-wasters, however charming, that lack the punch of necessity that even the best musicals need. (The score is playfully orchestrated by Michael Starobin, and Vadim Feichtner provides the lively musical direction.)
But if Finn erred in not making significant adjustments to his lackluster score, Sheinkin scored by leaving firmly in place her book's sharp-edged hilarity and undercurrent of pathos. She develops her characters so cleanly, cleverly, and completely in her dialogue that one can see why Finn was reluctant to fully integrate his songs with it: Sheinkin has provided one of the 2004-2005 season's tightest and most satisfying musical librettos.
The strength of the book makes it even more unfortunate that, since the Off-Broadway opening, a number of actors have loosened in their performances and begun to force the off-kilter comedy that once came naturally. The biggest offender is Dan Fogler, who's crossed over the line into complete caricature that he merely toed at Second Stage: He's now too over the top in presenting William Barfee's mental and physical eccentricities - particularly in his big solo spot, "Magic Foot," which describes his singular spelling strategy.
Celia Keenan-Bolger has lost enough of her wide-eyed wonder as the solitary Olive Ostrovsky to dampen her character's sympathetic impact; Deborah S. Craig and Sarah Saltzberg, as overachiever Marcy Park and liberal-minded Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre respectively, and Derrick Baskin, as the "comfort counselor" who consoles his dismissed charges with juice boxes and sage advice, haven't fallen as far, but are noticeably less effective.
Of the spellers, only Jesse Tyler Ferguson (playing last-minute substitute Leaf Coneybear) and Jose Llana (as last year's champ, Chip Tolentino) have stayed rooted in reality, and give performances equal in strength and fun to those they gave Off-Broadway. Lisa Howard remains warm and amusing as color commentator and former Bee winner Rona Lisa Peretti, and the irreplaceable Jay Reiss (also credited with contributing "additional material") has made his zesty deadpan even more raucously hilarious than before.
Director James Lapine should have been as careful with his actors as he was overseeing the physical nature of the transfer, which is superb: Set designer Beowulf Boritt hasn't just adapted his middle-school gymnasium set, but transformed the entire theater (lobbies and all) into a school, complete with inspirational banners and kids' art projects crowding the walls and an extended basketball court for the set to bring the action as close to the audience as possible. Lighting designer Natasha Katz and choreographer Dan Knechtges have adeptly adapted their work to the new space.
On one level, this should serve as an example of how to transfer an Off-Broadway musical: When Avenue Q moved from the Vineyard Theatre to Broadway following rave reviews two years ago, it shed neither its quirkiness nor its introverted immediacy, though the presence of both resulted in a somewhat less-fulfilling experience in a Broadway house. Not that Avenue Q was hurt by this: It trumped the inferior Wicked to win last season's Best Musical Tony, and will soon begin a sit-down production in Las Vegas.
Whether The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will prove as successful remains to be seen. If it's more relatable and human - at least on paper, if not currently in the broader than ideal production - it never obtains quite the synthesis of word, music, and concept that has made Avenue Q so captivating to so many. Ultimately, it's that more than the quality of the transfer itself that will spell either doom or success for this well-intentioned but not yet entirely realized show.