The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, book by Rachel Sheinkin, Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Concept by Rebecca Feldman, with additional material by Jay Reiss. Directed by Jeremy Dobrish.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Ergo, lost things can be found."
Being the fat kid whose parents have brought him up with the illusion that one day he will be handsome, no, very handsome, is more than merely difficult. Itís an impossible situation that requires compensation. For William Barfťe, adding the accent to his name and being the best speller in the world provides exactly that. Sadly, that turns out to be just not adequate in the real world of the competitive Spelling Bee, a national rage that has spawned this musical at Barrington Stage Company, and at least three movies over the past five or six years.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee began its life in a workshop collective, then moved to Barrington Stage when that company was still located in Sheffield, MA. There it was developed into the stage show which successfully moved to New York City and won Tony Award recognition. Now the company that moved it from obscurity to prominence is presenting the show on its new mainstage in Pittsfield. Itís been a long, pugnacious trip but itís here and Berkshire audiences can finally get a look at their "baby" musical.
What theyíll see is a funny show, one of the funniest in recent memory. It is also musical in that odd way that contemporary musicals have taken. The songs donít stand out, donít jump out, waiting to be sung in the lobby by delighted audiences. The songs, instead, illuminate the interior motives of their characters and create a richer, well-ingrained photograph of the personality on stage. For example a boy named Leaf Coneybear sings "Iím Not Smart" but clearly he is because he recognizes his own level, his own inadequacies. Another boy, Chip, confesses in a song "My Unfortunate Erection" that his puberty has taken the edge off his previous intent, winning the competition. These are not your Rodgers and Hammerstein ballads, your Lorenz Hart sophisticates, your Cole Porter brilliantined young men. Not even Stephen Sondheim would saddle a character with the "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" and end this plaintive threnody with the words, "Goodbye Whomever."
In other words this is a not-so sophisticated, not-so clever, not-so moving, not-so adult musical comedy, with an emphasis on the comedy, about kids and the adults who spur them onward to national prominence in a field that has no resonance in their futures. Like "beauty queen", or "homecoming queen" the winner of the Spelling Bee lives in a very temporary glory and those who fall by the wayside can still live productive, useful lives after the houselights come up.
The show falls midway between musical reality and deadly parody. The authors have created a wonderland of things we can recall from childhood and to make this more poignant four members of the audience join the company at each performance and take their places among the competitors. That just makes things more delightful and increases the dramatic edge of this curious show.
The current production sports some wonderful talents. Miguel Cervantes is Chip and after his expulsion from the Bee he returns as a vendor of candies and later as Jesus who doesnít think that spelling bees deserve all this much attention. Cervantes is a dynamo and does a wonderful job in his roles. Clifton Guterman takes Leaf, a Great Barrington native, to glorious heights as he extols his own inadequacies, parading his curiously 1960s dogma learned through his home-schooling experience. Demond Green, fondly remembered from his appearance here last season in "Funked Up Fairy Tales," plays Mitch, the parolee doing public service as the comfort counselor. He is hilarious.
Emy Baysic is a perfect Marcy Park, the perfectionist who rebels from that manifesto and finds glory in failure. Molly Ephraim as Olive Ostrovsky, an outsider who may not be qualified to compete, is charming.
As the adults on stage, Sally Wilfert plays Rona Lisa Peretti - a former winner of the Bee - and Michael Mastro plays Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, once suspended for losing it with a student. Their relationships with the children are endlessly fascinating and Panch delivers his most outrageous lines with complete control while Wilfert improvises many of hers with panache and a completely natural style.
Eric Petersen plays William Barfee the misfit who makes the most out of mis-fitting. He dances and sings and spells with his ĎMagic Foot" and completely captures our imaginations and our hearts. In this he is amply confounded by the Logainne Schwarzengrubenierre of actress Hannah DelMonte. She lisps and politically surprises the audience over and over as she brings her grammar school political agenda to the forefront, especially confronting her two Dads while dealing with her absentee mother.
In fact, the parent factor plays a major role in this show. Oliveís mother is in an Ashram in India and her father never appears at the competition, finally balking at paying the $25 entry fee. Williamís two mothers are in the house, but not together. Leafís entire family has come to watch him fail, their belief in his possibilities since he is not smart. Altogether this show says as much about family dynamics as it does about youthful competition and the need to breed to succeed.
Under Jeremy Dobrishís direction this all moves smoothly and sweetly to its inevitable conclusion. Dan Knechtges provides wonderful, exuberant dances and the band, led by Brian Usifer plays their hearts out, sometimes overpowering the powerful singers on stage, all of whom are miked.
The physical production matches the vision of the authors and director, with a wonderful set by Beowulf Boritt, perfect costumes by Jennifer Caprio, effective and focused lighting by Jeff Davis and bright, if unbalanced, sound by Michael Eisenberg.
This is not the best musical ever, but it is one of the funniest, sweetest, silliest and most pleasurable musicals Iíve seen in a long life of musical watching. The fact that it also has, and sends, a message about the way we treat our children is thickening gravy in a stewpot with fabulous ingredients.
Eric Petersen as William Barfee; photo: Kevin Sprague
Sally Wilfert and Michael Mastro; photo: Kevin Sprague
Logainne exalted by her two Dads; photo: Kevin Sprague
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays at Barrington Stage Company on Union Street in Pittsfield, MA through July 12. Tickets are $36-$56. For schedules and reservations call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go to their website at www.barringtonstageco.org