Barrington Stage Company premieres “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (July 8-August 1, 2004)
The Mount Everett Regional School in Sheffield, Mass., where the Barrington Stage Company makes its home, is an appropriate setting for this world-premiere musical, which takes place in a school auditorium during the regional finals of the national spelling bee. Putnam County is a fictional place, and the name of the host school, like so many other word plays in this play about words, is a joke: Lake Hemingway Dos Passos Junior High. But this parody of a spelling tournament follows the rules and format of the real thing.
The young hopefuls wear numbered placards around their necks; an official Pronouncer reads the words; the bee’s mistress of ceremonies throws in fun facts about the contenders, just like the color commentator in ESPN’s coverage of the national finals in Washington; the audience (that’s us) applauds when a hard word is spelled correctly. The contestants may ask for a word’s definition, its derivation and its context in a sentence, though here the examples are usually facetious. For example, “kumkum,” the powder Hindu women use to paint the red spot on their foreheads: “Mary, put down that kumkum. We’re Episcopalian.”
“25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” featuring songs by William Finn, whose “Falsettos” was a hit for the company two seasons back, was workshopped by Barrington Stage last winter with this cast. The current run is its world premiere. In an almost real-time enactment of the spelling bee, the contest progresses through several rounds, intermingled with musical soliloquies and cutaways to scenes at home. In this, it parallels the 2002 documentary film “Spellbound,” which followed eight youngsters through the national spelling bee finals. But the Putnam County kids are even more gangly and geeky than those pubescent competitors. The play’s satirical version of middle America also recalls another movie, “Waiting for Guffman,” but with a joky counterculture overlay.
One contestant, a girl named Logan (Sarah Salzberg), has two dads who have blended their names, so her surname is Schwartzandgrubenierre. (Most of the characters’ names are gags.) Logan is a twitchy child, fiddling nervously with her tights when she’s getting ready to spell. Two braids sprout from her temples and a pronounced lisp almost trips her up when has to spell “sluice.”
Leaf Coneybear’s ex-hippie parents named all their children for various kinds of flora. Leaf (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) compulsively smooths his hair, crosses his eyes when spelling a word, and has a solo in which he bemoans his suspicion that “I’m Not That Smart.” This is a fear shared by most of the contenders. With a couple of overconfident exceptions, these sixth and seventh graders are nerdy misfits, insecure in almost everything about themselves. But they all have one talent that sets them apart from their well-rounded peers: They can spell words most of us have never even heard of. The oddest of these oddballs is William Barfee. Fat and sweaty, with multiple speech impediments and an arrogant swagger, he’s the kind of kid other kids love to torment. Far from wallowing in self-doubt, he flaunts his mental gifts in a way that would drive other kids crazy but, in Dan Fogler’s tour-de-force performance, he’s very funny and almost endearing. Barfee also has a unique method of checking the word he’s about to spell. Where some other contestants write it out on their sleeve with a finger, or whisper it into their palm, he spells it out on the floor with his foot—a habit that turns into a dance number. Later, when he encounters a word he doesn’t know, he literally stumbles over it.
The most ordinary—that is, normal—contestant is Olive (Celia Keegan-Bolger), a shy, lonely girl with pink scrunchies in her hair and pink overalls on her wispy frame. She’s a perennial second-place finisher, and wishes her mother were there to give her the strength to win. But mom is off pursuing her own personal goals, in an Indian ashram.
Set apart from all the other contenders is a Korean girl named—wait for it—Gramercy Park (Deborah S. Craig). No insecure nerd, she, but a compulsive overachiever who excels at everything but is getting tired of always living up to expectations. Her solo number, “I Speak Six Languages,” is a highlight of the evening, and its best laugh comes when she demonstrates her limitless talents by bumping the show’s pianist off his bench to accompany herself.
Three adults are also on hand: the school’s guidance counselor, a former spelling bee champion herself (the brass-lunged Lisa Howard); the vice principal, who reads out the words (Jay Reiss); and the “comfort counselor,” Mitch Mahoney (Derrick Baskin), who consoles the losers when they hear that fateful “ding” of the bell that signals a misspelling. Everything in this play is a little skewed, though, and Mitch is no exception: He’s a tattooed tough guy who is doing this job as a condition of his parole.
Four other grownups perform in the show, but it’s a different group every night. Audience members are chosen at random and invited on stage as contestants. Their presence adds to the sense of audience participation, but their real function is to lose, since a tournament needs preliminary losers to create the group of finalists. These civilians each get a couple of easy words to spell before being blindsided by an impossible one and applauded back to their seats. It’s a cute gimmick, but the volunteers are inevitably awkward on stage, especially when two of them are drafted into a dance number, and it makes the show look unnecessarily amateurish.
The six performers playing the spellers (the other one is Robb Sapp, whose character is eliminated when he’s distracted by his sudden adolescent erection) are young and energetic and abundantly talented. But they’re not 12 years old, and though the suspension of disbelief at watching grownups play kids takes hold pretty quickly, there are moments when they get just too goofy and we see the adult mugging through the playacting.
The characters’ age also affects the songs, as most of the performers try to sing like children—that is, unmodulated, a little harsh, a little off-key. And this doesn’t help the score at all. William Finn’s songs are not particularly memorable, neither richly melodic nor lyrically inventive. But the score is more than serviceable, and it bounces along amiably, accompanied by a solo piano and propelled by an energetic cast.
Of course, since “Spelling Bee” is structured as a contest, everything eventually turns on the question, Who will win? For much of the second half, it seems evident who the winner will be—an obvious but satisfying payoff. And when that expectation is sabotaged, the twist is not a refreshing surprise but a letdown. Maybe the victor is the contestant who most needs to win, while the others have a little something else to fall back on. But in the opening-night audience there was a palpable sense of disappointment at the outcome.
Apart from this strategic error, Rachel Sheinkin’s script is lively and inventive, with some good jokes—and some good bad jokes—as well as some reflective and poignant moments. Beowulf Boritt’s set is a nice approximation of a school stage sharing the gym with a basketball court, Jen Caprio’s costumes help characterize each of the spellers, Dan Knectges’ choreography is appropriately simplistic for the small stage and the cast of mostly non-dancers, and Carmel Dean’s vocal arrangements are brassy exemplars of close harmony.
But above all, this show owes its measure of success to the six grownup kids who give their performances all the fearless energy and boundless joy of childhood.
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