Play: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Group: New Line Theatre
Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
Dates: July 30, 31, August 1, 6, 7, 8
Story: OK, who remembers the sweaty palms, dry mouth and surging anxiety of grade school spelling bees? Whether in class or in a more formalized setting, those paeans to proper diction and Webster’s official spellings for words common or cockeyed can cause more sweating than a steamy St. Louis summer day.
So it is for the half dozen youngsters competing for the title of champion at their county’s silver anniversary spelling bee. These kids seem a motley lot, including gentle, home-schooled Leaf Coneybear; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, who lives with her two highly competitive dads; Scout-attired Chip Tolentino; nerdy and exasperated William Barfee, who tires of people’s inability to remember the accent aigu in his surname’s second syllable; Marcy Park, Catholic grade school student extraordinaire; and Olive Ostrovsky, whose mother is on a nine-month spiritual quest in India and whose dad hasn’t arrived as the bee begins.
Officiating are vice principal Douglas Panch, Sarah Palinesque realtor Rona Lisa Peretti and rules enforcer Mitch Mahoney. Additionally, three members of the audience randomly selected are invited on stage to test their grammatical mettle with these articulate aficionados.
Highlights: All of the stress and self-doubt of puberty are relived in delightfully meticulous and humorous detail in director Scott Miller’s uproariously magnificent production of this surprise Broadway hit from 2005. Miller has assembled a smart and energetic cast who throw themselves hilariously into their squirming roles, while also managing some poignant moments as well. Indeed, this version plays even better than did the touring show at The Fox a year ago, as Spelling Bee is a small musical that is most effective in a cozier venue.
Other Info: The show’s weakest element actually is the music by William Finn, which is mediocre and mundane for the most part, albeit with witty and clever lyrics which capture the spirit of each player’s moment in the spotlight. The book by Rachel Sheinkin is consistently funny stuff, and apparently the New Line folks are pretty darned good with their ad lib quips addressed to the surprise audience contenders. The work itself was conceived by Rebecca Feldman and her improvisational group, The Farm, and provides a cornucopia of chuckles and charm throughout.
Nicholas Kelly does his best to steal the show with a wonderfully affecting performance as the long-suffering but cocky Barfee. His proclivity for spelling out words with his Magic Foot offers one of the show’s most delightful bits, and his droll comic delivery keeps the laugh meter consistently near the top. Alexis Kinney is excellent as the defiantly determined Marcy, who surprisingly rebels at Rona’s comment that she is “all business,” while Emily Berry is priceless as Logainne, determined to spread the message of diversity but also troubled by her gay father’s penchant for winning at all costs.
Aaron Allen is a hoot as the affable Leaf, who doesn’t have a competitive bone in his body and honestly doesn’t believe he belongs with these ‘winners.’ His take on Leaf’s ballad, I’m Not That Smart, is affecting and filled with warmth, and his spastic approach to spelling is weirdly engaging. Katie Nestor is terrific as the sweet and lonely Olive, while Mike Dowdy offers some fitfully funny moments as Chip, particularly when he’s embarrassed by some physical developments while on stage. Brian Claussen is very funny as a real-life Principal Skinner of The Simpsons in his thick-headed approach to the students, while Deborah Sharn brings wide-eyed delight to the bee champion-turned-realtor Rona Lisa, and John Rhine provides his own humorous touch to the grim sergeant-at-arms Mahoney.
Robin Michelle Berger’s choreography is free form and high-spirited as it captures the antic energy of the kids on numbers such as Pandemonium, and Todd Schaefer’s set provides a base of words etched into the flooring and a banner above with a bee attesting to the competition at hand. Amy Kelly’s costumes are humorous stars in their own right while Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting keeps the focus appropriately on the players in the spotlight. Pianist Chris Petersen’s band is supportive without being overbearing, with cellist Ethan Edwards, keyboardist Joel Hackbarth, percussionist Clancy Newell and reed player Robert Vinson.
New Line’s Spelling Bee is what e-n-t-e-r-t-a-i-n-m-e-n-t is all about and a positive life lesson to boot.