'Spelling Bee': Still Small-Town and Seductive
When the touring company of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a good-natured musical about the dreams and perils of young spelling bee contestants, first came to town a number of years ago at the National Theater, I remembered thinking that we might be in for a sugary evening.
I also remembered being surprised at how much I actually enjoyed myself. The darned kids had a way of making you care about them, charming you with little guile and a lot of enthusiasm. Amid the snappy and high-energy musical numbers, there were more than a few gentle jabs at completion and the meaning of success American-style.
Now that “Spelling Bee” is a ground-up spring production at Ford’s Theatre, I got surprised again, along similar lines. This show—with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, once again takes us to small-town America, where Putnam County is putting on a highly competitive spelling bee, the winner of which will go to the national contest. The usual mixed bag of characters—a kid with two dads, an over-hyper, over-achieving girl who can also do gymnastics and doesn’t get much sleep, a girl who has nobody in the audience (except this audience) rooting for her, a boy scout just beginning to feel the physical pangs of noticing girls, an endearing and gentle kid with the unlikely name of Leaf Coneybear and a fellow by the name of William Barfee, a high-achieving speller with a magical foot, whose name is always mispronounced.
Nightly, there are also an additional four members chosen from the audience to participate, which I suspect, works with various levels of success and in any case, all of them will be eliminated because that’s the way the show is written.
The cast is ethnically and racially mixed, although there appears to be no significance to that—like spelling, the philosophy here is that acting is about talent, not skin color. The production is directed with verve by Peter Flynn, working in the big shoes of original director James Lapine. A welcome addition is choreography by Adventure Theater Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt.
The show is, at turns, very funny and on the money, with some updated references, as slowly but surely the words come that cause eliminations. Guiding the proceedings are Carolyn Agan as Olive Ostrovsky, a former queen bee, or spelling bee champ, and the taciturn and slightly disturbed vice principal Douglas Panch, played with clipped humor by Matthew Anderson.
But it’s the kids—they’re supposed to be younger than they are—who are the stars of this show, at turns anxious, wise and silly, lonely, smart, goofy, dressed in kid styles that come out of the fashion world of America without a red carpet.
With audience members in the cast, it’s “Putnam County” is conducive to rooting and reaction. Everybody’s got a fan in the audience. When competitors misspell a word, it’s often a sad, and sometimes oddly triumphant occasion.
Part of the reason the show works so well—almost in spite of its subject—is its beguiling small-town attitudes and the cast, of course. Every time, for instance, Panch mispronounces Barfee’s name (it’s pronounced Barfay), played with barely contained patience by Vishal Vaidya, you tend to flinch a little, too. Then, there’s Kristin Garaffo, playing the anxious Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Shouldn’t that be a word to spell in the bee?), who plays the worried girl with halting efficiency and determination. Felicia Curry is explosive, confident without a life outside the bee, and Nickolas Vaughan plays Leaf Coneybear with affecting wistfulness, even though his family thinks him stupid. Rachel Zampelli is a true Broadway-type trouper as Rona Lisa Peretti, who waits in vain to hear from her parents, including a mother gone away to an ashram.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs until May 17—still with the power to surprise and seduce.