For the Wit’s End Players’ new production at the State Fairgrounds’ New Times Theater, William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee succeeds extravagantly with more guffaws per 100 words than you’d get in a passel of Peanuts strips. Yet overall there’s a beguilingly sweet pathos to Spelling Bee that Schulz always aspired to and sometimes missed.
Even though Spelling Bee was nominated for six Tonys, winning for Sheinkin’s book, it’s a tricky show to pigeonhole. It suffers from almost none of the brute, soul-draining competition depicted in Jeffrey Blitz’s documentary Spellbound (2003). These kids want to win, but they start out as comic cartoons (one girl has a lisp, a fellow sports a belt of Boy Scout merit badges), and then they defiantly break out of type.
The show originated in the head of Rebecca Feldman and was originally a non-musical improvisational play, workshopped at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires. (Wherever Putnam County is, it has to be a deeply blue state like Massachusetts. One girl’s mother is in an ashram; another has two daddies.) Then it went to off-Broadway, which is what it feels most like. Great reviews and blockbuster box office bounced it to Broadway in 2005, following the lead of Avenue Q, a raunchier show that delivers fewer laughs.
Caped crusader: Nick Barbato (right) in Wit’s End Players’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
In this Wit’s End mounting, director David Witanowski delivers a blend of rigorous preparation and madcap improv. This is the first show I’ve ever seen where five of the speaking roles are assigned to characters and players whose names are not in the program. On one hand Witanowski dresses his Syracuse cast to look quite a bit like figures in the poster from the New York City production, with pigtails, glasses, parochial school uniforms and hanging shirttails. And on the other he plucks four innocents from the audience, some with gray hair, to play additional “children” to begin the bee. While this device has been excruciating elsewhere, the four Witanowski picked opening night delivered perfectly timed ad-libs.
As a bee is a contest, Spelling Bee generates steadily rising dramatic tension across an hour and 40 minutes without intermission. In a book as quirky as Sheinkin’s you can be sure that any presumed foreshadowing about the eventual winner is misleading. Very quickly the interplay between the characters becomes more interesting than who succeeds or fails. While each contestant has a patented shtick, comic opportunities are also lavished on the three adults running the show.
Action begins with the moderator, Rona Lisa Peretti (Erin Williamson), the county’s No. 1 realtor who remembers her own moment of glory when she got the correct spelling for “syzygy” in earlier years. Given to wide mood swings, she sings about how every contestant has a shot at winning and that fate has switched the rankings from year to year. She resists the attentions of assistant principal Douglas Panch (Alex Gherardi), who reads the words as he sits next to her, and can’t hide rooting for her favorite student.
Gherardi, a Le Moyne College senior and frequent performer in college productions, all but steals the show with a comic delivery somewhere between Woody Allen and Mo Rocca. He’s ridiculously nonplused at the gross unfairness of having one contestant get the word “cow” when another gets “crepuscule” (coincidentally the original title of the show). Some of Spelling Bee’s sustained laughter comes from his less-than-useful illustrations of a word’s use. Take “cystitis,” which he defines as an inflammation of the urinary bladder: “Sally’s mother told her it was her cystitis that made her special.” Once Gherardi gets on a roll he reaps laughter from lines that lie flat on the page, like “Correct” and “Incorrect.”
Breaking the cliche that administrators must be nerdy, the third adult on the stage is Mitch Mahoney (Josh Mele), an ex-convict performing his required community service at the bee by serving as “comfort counselor,” which means he hands out juice boxes to losers. One of the best-known tenors in community theater, Mele initially looks to be cast against type, but his swagger and scowl project a degree of menace and aggression. Then again, with Sheinkin’s jack-in-the box characterization, Mele’s mellifluous voice will be needed as the action unfolds.
When one considers that Spelling Bee originated without music, William Finn’s score is well integrated into the action and projects much of the inner life of different characters. For “Chip’s Lament,” an unfortunate Boy Scout, Chip Tolentino (Brian Scott), explains how a sudden rush of hormones to his groin has blitzed his concentration on sounding out the syllables. Or the self-doubts felt by everyone that manic Leaf Coneybear (Nick Barbato), clad in a Superman cape, shares in “I’m Not That Smart.” Sadder still is pigtailed Logainne (Carmen Viviano-Crafts), who has the two daddies and whose birth mother (“BM”) lives in a Kansas trailer, who sobs “Woe is Me.”
Sheinkin’s script allows more of the heavy lifting to the three remaining students, starting with the sinus-challenged William Barfee (Dan Williams), last year’s runner-up and a strong contender with his foolproof “Magic Foot” that allows him to visualize the correct spelling with the toe of his shoe. Barfee (“rhymes with parfait,” he growls) inexplicably thinks he looks good in shorts, even with his shirttail out. The role calls for excess physical expression, and won a Tony for Dan Fogler in the Broadway production.
In another way, the most demanding role is arguably blonde, petite Marcy Park (Elizabeth Luttinger), who does the splits, goes into the orchestra pit and seizes the keyboard from conductor Roy George, and sings that “I Can Speak Six Languages.” Luttinger, child of a musical family, also improvises on the sitar. There’s no joy in this for her character, though; Marcy sleeps three hours a night and is not allowed to cry.
Finally, lonely, needful Olive Ostrovsky (Danielle Nash) has only the dictionary for a friend but is assigned the best musical number in the show, “The I Love You Song,” in which she breaks hearts.
Except for the excessive volume of Roy George’s six-person ensemble, sometimes obliterating dialogue, director Witanowski has scored again, with the able assistance of Jodi Bova’s choreography. The script calls for radical changes of pace, where a speeded-up sequence is followed by another in slow motion. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee celebrates geekdom and obsession, but still exudes a lot of heart.
This production runs through Oct. 24. See Times Table for information.