The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 1, 2005
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a diverting and entertaining little musical, as far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far at all: I was underwhelmed by this new show by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn. Bee feels like what it is—a modest play with a cute concept (C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, by Rebecca Feldman), blown up into a Broadway musical, one that screeches "overkill" as it strains to justify a nearly two-hour running time and a $95 ticket price.
The idea of the show is to have grown-up actors play little kids who are competing in a local spelling bee. They're sort-of a microcosm of American kid-dom, or at least a skewed version of same. Chip Tolentino is a conscientious cub scout struggling against hormones (his big solo number is about his newly acquired penchant for inconvenient erections). Marcy Park is an Asian American whiz kid who speaks six languages, plays the piano (at one point pushing musical director Vadim Feichtner off his bench), excels at sports, and is—well—real tired. Leaf Coneybear is the child of aggressive hippies who have educated their child at home in everything except self-esteem. Logainne Schwartzandgrubnierre is the overachieving, lisping daughter of two gay fathers who are determined that she be a winner. Olive Ostrovsky is an insecure little girl with self-involved parents; she is fascinated by the magic of language and words (she's read the dictionary; at one point, she makes the dazzling observation that if you took the "w" from "answer," the "h" from "ghost," the extra "a" from "aardvark," and the "t" from "listen," you'd have the word "what," but no one would hear it because all the letters are silent"!).
William Barfee (pronounced Bar-FAY, as he endlessly reminds us) is the de facto hero of the piece: he's a fat, messy kid in shorts and an untucked-in shirt, who lost last year's spelling bee because his peanut allergy kicked in at a bad time. This year, he's cocky and confident, thanks to his "magic foot" (he "spells out" the words on the floor with his left shoe). Nevertheless, he quickly becomes the contestant to root for, notwithstanding all the good qualities that Olive seems to have, because he seems to want to win so badly. I won't say whether or not he does.
The bee part of Bee is fairly cute. Four additional "contestants" are recruited from the audience, and these unwitting cast members are integrated neatly into the proceedings. The rules allow the spellers to ask for a definition of any obscure word that's thrown at them, and also to ask to have it used in a sentence. This becomes a running joke in which Jay Reiss, as word "caller" Vice Principal Doug Panch, deadpans the reading of the abstruse definitions and then offers a ridiculously unhelpful sentence. Funny at first, this idea quickly runs out of steam.
Interspersed between the depiction of the spelling bee are fantasy-type sequences in which the participants recall or muse out loud about incidents in their short lives, almost all of which demonstrate that they are more mature than the so-called adults entrusted with raising them. All of the kids seem to have been indoctrinated, in various ways, with the notion that winning is everything; somehow the experience of this spelling bee is supposed to teach them that it's okay to come in second. The "moral" is as pat as it is unconvincing; the show's creators don't even really seem to believe it themselves.
Bee features a score by William Finn that sports the minimalist melodies and strained rhymes that are his trademark and weakness; nothing particularly interesting reached my ear. The book by Rachel Sheinkin is fitfully funny. The padding here shows rather baldly—there are endless reprises of a "goodbye" song and all sorts of stunts that feel rather desperate, like having Chip turn up selling candy in the auditorium or having Jesus appear in a vision to Marcy. The three adult characters—Vice Principal Panch, realtor/spelling bee maven Rona Lisa Peretti, and "Comfort Counselor" Mitch Mahoney, a parolee doing community service—are the broadest of caricatures. (Question for the casting director: why is the only African American in this show the guy who was in jail?)
Beowulf Borrit has transformed the whole of Circle in the Square (lobby included) into a gaudy all-American gymnasium: it's fun but too much; and the show fits awkwardly in the space anyhow. Costumes by Jennifer Caprio are caricatures that provide (not very funny) visual jokes and remove any sort of reality from the proceedings: no parent obsessed with winning would send his or her child anywhere, let alone to a spelling bee, looking as these motley kids do. Director James Lapine's work is unobtrusive to the point of absent. Choreographer Dan Knechtges has been given only a few opportunities here, and it seems to me that he muffs the main one—as far as I could tell, Barfee's "magic feet" dances don't spell out any letters at all.
The nine cast members mostly flounder. The exception is Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who finds both depth and authentic humor in Leaf Coneybeare, and also (briefly) as one of Logainne's gay dads. The others have moments to shine, especially Jay Reiss when he first does his jokey Vice Principal shtick and Celia Keenan-Bolger, exploring the wonder of language as the most nearly normal character on stage, Olive. Sarah Saltzman and Dan Fogler play the most eccentric of the kids, Logainne and Barfee, and they mug and overact shamelessly. (Saltzman's lisp is particularly annoying.)
Now, all that said, Bee is not unenjoyable—it has moments of wit and laughter, if not so many of heart or warmth. It would be a lot of fun in a 100-seat house at half the length, maybe on a double bill with another short novelty musical as its companion. What it's not, I'm afraid, is a big budget Broadway musical—not with any degree of comfort or honesty, anyhow.