Anyone who has ever attended a public spelling bee knows it makes for gripping live theater, with elements of American Idol. Your humble reviewer gained a grounding in how wrenching the bee is by serving as a judge for six years in the local bee, sponsored by the Syracuse Newspapers. Through dress, comportment and vocal tone, each contestant sketches the outline of a dramatic character facing the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat, to be suffered eventually by all but one. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, although a musical satire filled with comic exaggeration, gets the essence right. The show, now at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, also loves the kids, every nerd, misfit and geek.
Although a big hit off-Broadway and a Tony Award winner, Spelling Bee is easily misconstrued when seen from a distance and is hard to categorize. That starts with the heartfelt score by William Finn, who is more associated with the incisive wit and shredded emotions of Falsettos and A New Brain. The musical suffers from none of the brute, soul-draining competition of Jeffrey Blitz’s documentary Spellbound (2003). The kids in Spelling Bee want to win, and although they start out as cartoons, like the hyper-competitive Asian girl or the boy with a belt of Boy Scout merit badges, each defiantly breaks out of type.
The show originated in the head of Rebecca Feldman and was originally a non-musical improvisational play, workshopped at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires. Some of the improvisation is retained in the highly polished Merry-Go-Round production, directed and choreographed by Jerry Jay Cranford. Putative unscripted moments include digs about artistic director Ed Sayles as well as the current presidential election.
By prior arrangement, four volunteers from the audience, some gray-haired or bald, put on chest numbers to play additional “children” to begin the bee. Not to worry: You won’t be dragged up if you’re sitting in the front row. All four join in the songs and compete in spelling words, one lasting until intermission.
As Spelling Bee is premised on competition, Rachel Sheinkin’s book automatically generates rising dramatic tension across two acts. With all the show’s quirkiness, presumed foreshadowing has to be cast aside. Sheinkin will not let you pick a favorite. Then again, whoever wins in the end is not the point. All the fun comes from the interplay among the contestants. While each player has a patented shtick, comic opportunities are also lavished on the three adults running the show.
Resplendent in a tailored green suit, Putnam County’s No. 1 Realtor, Rona Lisa Perretti (Lorinne Lampert), begins the action by remembering that she scored the correct spelling for “syzygy” in earlier years. Self-possessed to the point of smarminess, Lampert’s Rona also lobs some excellent ad-libs. Some of her necessary exposition comes in song lyrics, like “The Spelling Rules/My Favorite Moment in the Bee,” where she explains that every contestant has a shot at winning and that fate has switched the rankings from year to year, but she can’t hide rooting for her favorites.
Next to her is the bee’s pronouncer, vice principal Douglas Panch (Greg Carter), who has taken over only because higher-ranking administrators were not available. Tall, thin and bald, Carter’s Panch strikes a sartorial clash with the chic Rona. His white shoes and belt might have gone over well at the Dubuque Rotary Club. Carter, we quickly deduce, is a dazzling comic who can draw sparks with some of the minor material and can all but stop the show with the outrageous inequity of having one contestant spell “cow” while the next gets “crepuscule” (coincidentally, the original title of the show).
Some of Spelling Bee’s sustained laughter comes from Panch’s less-than-useful word definitions. For “cystitis,” an inflammation of the urinary bladder, Panch informs the speller, “Sally’s mother told her it was her cystitis that made her special.” He has two significant early musical numbers, “The First Goodbye” and “Pandemonium.”
Not all the administrators of the bee are so ingratiating. The third adult on stage is a threatening-looking black man in a Rasta cap, Mitch Mahoney (Rudolph Searles III), an ex-convict performing his required community service, As the bee’s “comfort counselor,” he hands out juice boxes to losers. As Searles conceives him, however, Mitch has a softer side, singing a duet with Panch, “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.”
When one considers that Spelling Bee originated without music, Finn’s score is skillfully integrated into the action as it reveals the inner life of different characters. Take the self-doubts of home-schooled Leaf Coneybear (Scott Guthrie), clad in his Superman cape, who warbles, “I’m Not That Smart.” Pigtailed Logainne (Joanna Krupnick) has two gay fathers and her birth mother now lives in a Kansas trailer. Meanwhile, sitting in back so we cannot see his hands or his trousers is the post-pubescent Boy Scout Chip Tolentino (Geoffrey Kidwell), struggling to restrain the hormonal rush to his groin. The full expression of his worries has been scrubbed clean in Auburn to keep Spelling Bee family-friendly.
Sheinkin’s script allows for more of the heavy lifting by three remaining students, starting with the Asian overachiever in a parochial school uniform, Mary Park (Lisa Helmi Johanson). She sings “I Can Speak Six Languages” (a correction of Rona’s announcement that she speaks five), does splits and can play the violin, as she demonstrates. There’s no joy in any of this, though, because she sleeps only three hours a night and is not allowed to cry. Victory for her is breaking free of ambition.
The final two contestants make a mixed pair: tiny, slump-shouldered Olive Ostrowski (Brittany Kiernan), and fleshy, sinus-challenged and testy William Barfee (Bruce Warren), last year’s runner-up and a strong contender with his foolproof “Magic Foot” method, explained in a duet he sings with Rona. He can visualize the correct spelling of any word and trace it on the floor with the toe of his shoe. He has the sweets for tiny, lonely, needful Olive, which wins her the best number in the show, “The I Love You Song.” Warren has long been an MGR favorite, and his Barfee allows him the best fun of the season.
Director-choreographer Cranford and music director Corinne Aquilina
steer the top-notch cast through wild changes in pacing and tone. What
was written to look ramshackle comes off as a masterpiece of timing.
This production runs through Saturday, Sept. 29. See Times Table for information.