Monday, November 19, 2007

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

I think there's a rule that any review of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" must include at least one spelled-out word. So here's mine: i-r-r-e-s-i-s-t-i-b-l-e. I caught up with the hit Broadway show on tour this weekend, and I was hooked from the first word, strabismus, which I'm proud to say I knew how to spell, to the last, which of course I cannot divulge. (I'm not even sure I could have spelled it).

This is such a sweet musical that treats the joy and pain of adolescence with humor and warmth and sensitivity. Anyone who's ever been a kid can relate to it. I mean, c'mon, who hasn't been in a spelling bee? I can vaguely remember mine from elementary school. (I was a very good speller, although nowhere near championship material. I tend to crack under pressure).

The cast, most of whom appear to be in their 20s, does a great job of portraying a group of gawky, quirky preteens and making them truly memorable characters. They are all excellent and I think could easily be performing the show on Broadway: Katie Boren, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Justin Keyes, Vanessa Ray, Eric Roediger and Dana Steingold. (Concidentally, Keenan-Bolger, who plays Leaf Coneybear in the tour, is the brother of Celia Keenan-Bolger, who created the role of Olive Ostrovsky on Broadway.)

They're aided by Jennifer Caprio's inspired costume design that includes a parochial school uniform, pink overalls a couple sizes too small and a Boy Scout uniform complete with merit badges. The girls wear pigtails or braids, and the boys' hair is a little wild and uncombed. From their clothes to the way they talk and carry themselves, they all look and act like, well, kids. And choreographer Dan Knechtges really keeps things moving along. I especially loved how he gave the impression that these kids had spelled dozens of words in round after round of competition.

Also in the show are Roberta Duchak as the emcee and former spelling bee champion; James Kall as the vice principal who's back running the contest after five years during which he was mysteriously "unavailable;" and Kevin Smith Kirkwood, who's doing his community service at the bee, acting as the "comfort counselor," giving each speller a hug and a juicebox when they're eliminated, before gently leading them offstage.

Composer/lyricist William Finn and book writer Rachel Sheinkin (who won a Tony award) give each of the spellers a back story that's explored in words and music through the course of the show. (I can't quite get the catchy title tune out of my head!)

These are far from the most popular kids in school. In some cases, they may be ones who get teased or bullied for how they dress or how they look or how they act. Some of them are over confident and some of them lack confidence. For some, spelling may be the one thing they do better than anyone else. (And some of them have rather unorthodox spelling styles).

But Sheinkin and Finn don't wallow in self-pity. While we do feel sorry for these kids at times, I think the message is, ultimately, about resilience. I laughed and I felt sad, but ultimately, I sympathized with them. I found Olive's story, about a parent who may or may not make it to watch her compete, especially moving, and Vanessa Ray is very effective in portraying her insecurity and vulnerability.

It's almost as if Sheinkin and Finn use over-the-top stereotypes, the overachieving Asian-American, the nerd, to break down stereotypes, so that by the end, we get to know each of these children as the lovable individuals that they really are. And I have to admit, I actually got a little choked up at the end.

One of the unique features of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is the audience participation. There were four guest spellers at the show I attended - three audience members and a local television anchorwoman. I really enjoyed watching the non-professionals interact with the cast. Some of them definitely seemed more comfortable than others. But they all deserve major kudos for doing something I'd never be brave enough to do.

The show's creators do a good job of keeping the material topical, making a few jokes that are specific to wherever they are on tour, keeping the political references current. Although this is a show about children, some of the material isn't quite G-rated. One speller with surging hormones sings a lament about "my unfortunate erection." Despite that caveat, I think this is a musical for anyone old enough to compete in a spelling bee. It really speaks to how kids often feel at this age.

I'm not an expert on spelling bees, but I have seen the documentary "Spellbound," and the movie "Akeelah and the Bee," both of which cover the same ground, although without music or humor. "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a gentle spoof that truly captures the atmosphere of these competitions - from the young contestants' anxiety to the sometimes unrelenting parental pressure and the sometimes off-the-wall words. It's a w-i-n-n-e-r.

At the conclusion of the performance, cast member Eric Roediger asked for donations to Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS. He mentioned specifically which local programs would benefit. So when the show comes to your area, it's a great way to make a donation to a worthy cause that will help people in your community. Every week of fundraising lost to the Broadway stagehands' strike is a loss of over $350,000 to BC/EFA.

The Broadway production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which isn't affected by the strike, is playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre. While it's slated to
close Jan. 20, the show is touring nationwide through the end of May. And the first regional production will be presented June 11 to July 12 at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., where "Spelling Bee" was created and developed in 2004. The Barrington Stage production is a joint venture with the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass., which will present the show from Aug. 12-31.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

So glad you enjoyed the production. It really is a sweet little charmer, isn't it?!

Esther said...

Awww, it sure is! I knew it would be funny, but I was surprised at just how tender and poignant it was.