Who would have thought that there would be a pop culture interest in the art of S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G. Yet, in recent years, ESPN has enjoyed good ratings with its telecast of the SCRIPPS-HOWARD NATIONAL SPELLING BEE and THE NATIONAL SCRABBLE CHAMPIONSHIP. The documentary feature SPELLBOUND did very well in the theaters and was nominated for an Academy Award. Now, the grade school staple of Spelling Bees has made its way to Broadway in the form of a highly original musical. THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE had its world premiere production in July 2004 at the Barrington Stage Company in Sheffield, Ma. It was subsequently presented at Second Stage Theater (NYC) in February and enjoyed great success which mandated this move to Broadway.
This production is a crowd-pleaser and is certain to reap many Tony nominations. The target audience for this show is anyone who went to school. If you have warm, fuzzy memories of the academic process or even not-so-fond remembrances of teachers and classmates past, then this show is for you.
This musical follows the hopes, dreams and disappointments of six children (played by adults) competing in their county spelling bee, with the winner going to the Nationals. Also, competing in the contest are four pre-selected audience members. This type of gimmick usually comes off as forced, but with the help of the cast and the accommodating script, this venture into audience participation is one of the true charms of the show.
The casting is perfect. The best is Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Leaf Coneybear, a goofy speller that feels no support from his large family. His faces and comic timing are excellent and keeps the audience amused throughout. Celia-Keenan Bolger lights up the stage as the insecure Olive Ostrovsky, the most normal of the participants. Olive spends time worrying about her delayed father and missing her mother who is in India at an Ashram. You can feel her anxiety and pain as she continues to achieve in the contest. Deborah S. Craig plays Marcy Park the over-achieving, stereotypical Asian girl. She speaks six languages and wows the house with her many talents, which includes unseating the show’s pianist to accompany herself during her musical number. There is a marvelous edge to her performance as she balances the line between her need for acceptance through her achievements and her wanting to ditch it all in favor of personal freedom. Jose Llana plays Chip Tolentino, last years winner who is throttled by unexpected ” excitement” at a crucial moment in the bee. Mr. Llana is terrific in his showstopping number “M.U.E.” (My unfortunate erection). Sarah Saltzman is very funny as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, a young activist who is pushed by her two gay fathers to win, even if it means cheating. Last, but certainly not the least, of the students is Dan Fogler as William Barfee, the overweight, messy but brilliant misfit who spells the words out first on the floor with his “magic foot”. Mr. Fogler has been with the show since its origins and comfortable and winning in this showy role.
There is great support by Derrick Baskin as Mitch Mahoney, a young man whose job it is to comfort losing students as part of his community service. Jay Reiss and Lisa Howard are perfect as the teacher/moderators of the event. Aside from the excellent cast, the strength of the show is its book by Rebecca Feldman. It is clever, witty and outright funny and will be especially appreciated by wordsmiths young and old.
The score by William Finn, the award-winning composer of Falsettoland, is probably the weakest element in the show, only because the book is so funny that the music tends to interrupt the flow of the comedy. That being said, it is still a very clever score. James Lapine’s direction is crisp and suitable to the subject matter. The choreography by Dan Knechtges is capable and serves its material well. This may be the first show you will come out humming the w-o-r-d-s. go and e-n-j-o-y.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is at the Circle in the Square Theater (50th St. between Broadway and 8th). The performance schedule is: Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesday through Friday at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM and Sundays at 3PM and 7:30PM. Tickets are available through Telecharge at 212-239-6200 (or at http://www.telecharge.com) or at box office.
Review written by Sal Piro, Sept 28, 2005