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"THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUTY SPELLING BEE"
Chosen "Best Director" by The Berkshire Eagle for
"richly inventive and insightful collaborative work"
In a word, 'Spelling' is marvelous
SHEFFIELD -- There can't be a better theater company housed in a high school than Barrington Stage Company. Julianne Boyd has established the theater as the preeminient place in Massachusetts for the production of musicals, so where better to mount the world premiere of a musical that's actually set in a high school?
And what a show it is. "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" has everything a rollicking musical should have: wit and grace, heart and soul, charm and a bit of a bite. None of these attributes will be surprising to fans of William Finn ("Falsettos," "Elegies"), who wrote the music and lyrics. What is something of a surprise, though, is that the songs are really the sidekicks to the delightful book by Rachel Sheinkin, a Brooklyn playwright and librettist, whose crisp writing and wide-ranging humor keep the proceedings lithe and lively.
As you can guess from the title, the musical concerns the competitive world of school spelling bees, as six enormously talented actors do battle with one another, their own adolescent demons, and spellers from the audience.
Sheinkin is politically incorrect enough to have fun with brainiac stereotypes -- the lispers and the cross-eyed, the boy who's done in by his erection and the fat kid who knows he's the smartest of the bunch ("I'm the Yankees, not the Red Sox"). At the same time, her fondness for each character is so obvious that it's hard to imagine many will be offended at touches such as the lisping girl, Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre, getting the word "cystitis."
And how can you be offended when the show is so marvelously executed? The all-adult cast is letter-perfect, but Dan Fogler as the weighty William Barfee is hysterical, dancing out each word he spells and reminding us of kids we used to love to hate.
Directors Michael Unger and Rebecca Feldman use the company's Stage II as a transformed gym. The students pull at their unfashionable stockings or their hair trying to come up with the right spelling, but Finn's and Sheinkin's sympathies are with them. A girl is given "chimera" to spell, which leads to a touching song about the love she imagines from her self-centered parents.
Finn's music, which works seamlessly with the book, is his usual mix of Stephen Sondheim and Randy Newman, with big up-tempo numbers like "Pandemonium" that allow the whole cast to go a little crazy, as well as the pretty but sad "The I Love You Song."
"Spelling Bee" has its eyes on a bigger stage in New York -- hence the unneeded miking, which resulted in problems here. If it doesn't find an immediate home in New York, perhaps an enterprising producer could bring it to Boston to accompany the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Falsettos" next season.
In any case, we haven't heard the last from William Barfee and company. They're likely to be casting their spell, sans spell-check, for years to come.
VARIETYBy FRANK RIZZO
The genesis of the show was a music-less piece at Rebecca Feldman's improvisational group the Farm, and one can imagine the setup as perfect fodder for an audience-participation goof. But as the show developed, it also deepened, especially when Finn joined the team and added his vernacular-rich lyrics and engaging music, giving even stereotypical characters specificity, heart and growth. A new and fuller show emerged that maintains the spirit of improv but also displays the craft of pros who want to make the spontaneity stick to something real. "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (not the snappiest of titles) has it both ways.
The delights are in the details, as evidenced not only in this show -- which has a hilarious script by Rachel Sheinkin -- but in hit documentary "Spellbound," which follows a group of kids to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. ("Where they treat you well because you spell," goes a Finn lyric.) Both works examine these smart, self-aware, socially inexperienced pre-teens who find comfort in their camaraderie and safety in the world of words.
In "Spelling Bee," the experience is more loose, buoyant and low-tech. (With one piano and a no-frills set, it's a kind of musical "Love Letters.") It is, after all, a county-level competition, so the setting is as bare-bones as a school auditorium (which Barrington's Stage II pretty much is).
Six adult actors playing bright young bulbs -- joined by four audience members at every perf -- struggle with their pubescent insecurities as they get swept up in the great American quest to be the last speller standing. (At the perf reviewed, New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin was plucked from the aud. He did well among his competitors and took defeat gracefully, along with his consolation prize of apple juice.)
Of course, any elimination contest has its own intrinsic narrative power (just think of "A Chorus Line"). But this show's infectious nature and its affection for vulnerable outsiders bring to mind the spirit of a group of hip, young, contemporary works that speak to the sunnier-though-complex side of life -- and perhaps a new audience as well: "Hairspray," "Avenue Q" and "Zanna, Don't."
The composer's take is clearly his own, and nobody understands, sympathizes and loves wiseguys under severe stress more than Finn. "Woe Is Me" deals good-naturedly with a youth (Sarah Saltzberg) who has to cope with one of her two dads' unrelenting pressure to succeed. "I'm Not That Smart" centers on a nerdy boy (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) who likes his hair a little too much and struggles with being almost-bright. Celia Keenan-Bolger (late of "The Light in the Piazza") plays Olive, a sweetheart of an underdog who finds solace from her split parents with "My Friend the Dictionary."
Robb Sapp plays a youth whose puberty gets in the way of his concentration in "My Unfortunate Erection." ("My stiffy has ruined my spelling," he sadly sings.) Deborah S. Craig plays Gramercy Park, the overachiever who sings, dances, plays field hockey, twirls a baton and even takes over on the piano from music director Vadim Feichtner in the middle of her song in "I Speak Six Languages."
The standout is Dan Fogler as William Barfee, the peanut-intolerant student with a rare mucus-membrane disorder ("My whole life I was only breathing through one nostril," he says). Watching the oversized actor sing and dance "Magic Foot" (he first spells out the words with his delicate footwork) is a virtuosic delight.
All the professional adults also have their moments: Derrick Baskin as the bee's tough and tender "enforcer"; Lisa Howard as the guidance counselor (and former spelling champ) who gives daft color commentary ("Mr. Toobin is repeating the sixth grade for the third time"); and Jay Reiss as the vice principal "with a past" -- and some of the funniest word usages. ("The word is 'raconteur,' as in: 'Playwright Joe Orton was a great raconteur before being bludgeoned to death by his bald lover.'")
One could quibble with the lack of even one of Finn's glorious ballad melodies, or the occasional actor straying a tad too close to the cartoon level. But the pleasure quotient remains high throughout the intermissionless show. With a splendid cast, terrific music and savvy writing and direction, "Spelling Bee" shows how to produce a musical "in an alphabetter way."
Sets, Beowulf Boritt; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; costumes, Jen Caprio; sound, Randy Hansen; production stage manager, Angela DeGregoria; vocal arranger, Carmel Dean. Opened, July 15, 2004. Reviewed July 18. Runs through Aug. 1 Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.
BERKSHIRE EAGLE'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee': A contest in which even the losers are winners
SHEFFIELD -- H-O-M-E-R-I-C L-A-U-G-H-T-E-R: laughter that is uproarious and irrepressible. It also can be E-P-I-D-E-M-I-C. If you want proof, you need only wander down to Barrington Stage Company's Stage II -- if you can get a seat -- where you'll find an awful lot of people C-A-C-H-I-N-A-T-I-N-G for a solid 100 minutes or so.
The cause of all this M-I-R-T-H and R-A-P-T-U-R-E is "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," a new musical created by a team of divine madmen and women -- William Finn, music and lyrics; Rachel Sheinkin, book; Rebecca Feldman, who conceived this material in an earlier non-musical version with an off-Broadway company, The Farm, and who co-directed this production with Michael Unger; choreographer Dan Knechtges; and music director Vadim Feichtner.
Oh, yes, and let's not forget the cast of equally inspired loonies -- Lisa Howard as guidance counselor Rona Janet, a former spelling bee winner and emcee of the annual event that provides the framework for this inspired lunacy; Jay Reiss as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, word pronouncer for the contest and a man who seems eager to take the first word of his title literally; Derrick Baskin as comfort counselor Mitch Mahone, a parolee doing community service; and the student contestants -- Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Leaf Coneybear, who is in the contest by default; Robb Sapp as Tripp Barrington, last year's spelling bee champ whose adolescent hormones prove to be as much of a challenge as the words he is asked to spell; Celia Keenan-Bolger as Olive Ostrofsky, a perennial second-place finisher whose father is too busy to attend the bee and whose mother has been in an ashram in India for three years; Sarah Saltzberg as Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre, a walking compendium of tics and a speech defect who has two daddies who have diametrically opposed philosophies of child-rearing; Deborah S. Craig as the dour, manically focused Gramercy Park; and Dan Fogler as William Barfee, a science-oriented guy with an ego that is as inflated as his body.
There also are five volunteers from the audience but if there is anything predictable about "Spelling Bee" it is that none of the volunteers will make it to the finals, no matter how good they may be as spellers. It's not giving anything crucial away to say that none of the volunteers should make plans for the $200 savings bond that is the contest's top prize.
Of course, more is at stake than the savings bond. Finn, who may be one of the smartest lyricists working in theater today, Sheinkin and Feldman weave in some thoughts about the nature of competition in America -- "We're a nation of winners, we don't like losers" one of the contestants remarks. "Spelling Bee" also talks about parenting and the often unreasonable pressures adults place on their kids; and about the nature of winning and losing -- what is a winner? what is a loser? what does it mean to win or lose? But while those issues lend substance to "Spelling Bee," they don't take command. Finn and Sheinkin make their points gracefully and unobtrusively.
What they also do is set up expectations and then consciously undermine them. None of these characters is who they appear to be at first.
At first glance, it would seem easy to assign dislikes and sympathies. Ah, but how each of these characters reveal themselves. What we find instead is a group of characters who are endearing and irresistible. (I dare anyone to resist, for example, a scene between the ego-inflated Barfee and the timorous Olive during a break in the contest). In that regard, even the losers are winners.
Life may be pandemonium, as the kids sing in one of this musical's most ebullient moments, but life also is filled with surprises, with acts of personal courage in which individuals discover who they really are and then act upon it.
Neither "Spelling Bee's" creators nor this cast make it easy either to predict the outcome or to pick a favorite. As contestants drop out one by one, we feel their loss, their absence. These characters each have been created with compassion and respect. The humor here is not at anyone's expense; rather it is shrewdly observed, wonderfully antic, and, in many ways, daring.
"Spelling Bee" is the product of tremendously smart minds who have created characters that are fully dimensional and distinctly individual in ways that go well beyond their idiosyncratic methods for arriving at the correct spelling of a word.
The production moves smoothly and effortlessly across an impressive setting by Beowulf Boritt that redefines BSC's Stage II space and embraces the entire room.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is at Barrington Stage only through Aug. 1. With any luck, it will be back. Better yet, with any luck "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" will enjoy never-ending F-L-O-R-E-S-C-E-N-C-E.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
The project's etymology is impressive. The musical germinated from a concept by Rebecca Feldman, who includes among her New York credits shows in "dozens of downtown firetraps." C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, a show that she put on with the improvisational group the Farm, included cast member Sarah Saltzberg, who happens to nanny for Wendy Wasserstein, who hooked Feldman up with the Tony Award winning composer/lyricist William Finn. He in turn alerted BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd (a genius at musical midwifery) and also enlisted fellow NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program faculty member Rachel Sheinkin to flesh out the book. The next step was a BSC workshop in January, where several of the principals had a chance to help develop their own parts and a winning show coalesced. Now the whole thing clicks and hums -- and surprises -- like an especially ingenious cuckoo clock.
As the 2002 documentary Spellbound made abundantly clear, all is not fun and games in the world of competitive spelling -- especially not at the junior-high level, where the imperatives of puberty often intrude on the life of the mind. In Spelling Bee, past champion Tripp Barrington (cockily played by Robb Sapp) learns this the hard way when intrusive thoughts wrench his focus from the word at hand -- a very funny, pointed word that gives rise to a unique song, "My Unfortunate Erection."
Every word is well chosen in these rounds of elimination, including a few doozies designed to weed out the audience members who are chosen pre-show to compete. (It's unclear what it takes to get a slot: Do you have to stand around spouting terms like "sesquipedalian?") The civilians are even enfolded into a choreographed dance number before they're dispatched one by one with a tender chorus of "Goodbye, you were good but not good enough" and enfolded in the brawny arms of the "Comfort Counselor" (dynamite-voiced Derrick Baskin), a street tough assigned to community service.
The "real" contenders -- adult actors who are brilliant at capturing the postures and tics of squirmy kids -- are a motley melange of misfits and strivers, and often a combination of both. Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre (the marvelous Sarah Saltzberg) gets her composite name from her two gay dads and her neuroses from their hothouse home-schooling. With lisp-inducing braces, braided hair, and a habit of clutching and twisting her tights, she engages in full facial spasms when trying to concentrate on a word. The poor kid's so far out there, she's practically an extraterrestrial.
Though seemingly normal and plucky, Olive Ostrovsky (Celia Keenan-Bolger) is revealed to have a few problems at home, such as a mother who has fled it in favor of enlightenment in India. Olive's wish-fulfillment anthem, "The I Love You Song," is a heartbreaker. The offspring of hippies, Leaf Coneybear (an engaging and believable Jesse Tyler Ferguson) is borderline eccentric -- he sports a home-made cape -- and is convinced "I'm Not That Smart." As Asian-American overachiever Gramercy Park ("I Speak Six Languages"), Deborah S. Craig manages to convey blasť superiority without appearing bratty.
The ultimate weirdo is chubby William Barfee, who -- as the smarmy bee MC Rona Janet (Lisa Howard) informs us -- suffers from "a rare mucous membrane disorder" and, in a pinch, uses an unusual mnemonic device that he calls "Magic Foot." Actor Dan Fogler, his shirt half-tucked into gray Bermuda shorts and his curly hair side-parted in a Freddie Bartholomew bob, keeps his lower lip set in a perma-pout as he asserts his intellectual supremacy in a series of Randy Newman-style blues riffs. He's a hoot and irresistible, as is the entire show. If two hours of solid laughter strikes you as a worthwhile prospect, rush out to the Berkshires -- or pray that this utterly perfect production will soon make it to Manhattan.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Barrington Stage Company in Sheffield, Massachusetts, is presenting the world premiere of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee now through August 1st in their Stage II space at the Consolati Performing Arts Center. Although much attention is focused on the production due to the contributions of composer/lyricist William Finn, dramatizing the pre-pubescent angst of a run-off in the high-stakes National Spelling Bee didn't originate with him.
Rebecca Feldman conceived, directed and performed in C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, the genesis of Spelling Bee created by her improvisational group The Farm. Wendy Wasserstein, who saw the show because her nanny Sarah Saltzberg was - and still is - one of the performers, is attributed with the inspiration of bringing Finn and Feldman together.
Though not as personal as Falsettos or Elegies, Finn's quirky style suits the material well. His uniqueness is put to best use when he tells a good story and loads it with unexpected specificity. No one could better musicalize the burdens of an overachiever ("I Speak Six Languages"), the intense care and feeding of a little prodigy by her two dads ("Woe is Me") or the undoing of a former champion ("My Unfortunate Erection").
Once committed to the project, Finn enlisted a crack team of musical theatre practitioners from NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program where he teaches a master class. Book writer Rachel Sheinkin, now an adjunct faculty member, took on the task of fleshing out the material and shaping it into a geeky version of A Chorus Line.
Also signed on for the duration are fellow alumnus and recent Finn collaborators Vadim Feichtner (Elegies, Infinite Joy) as music director / dance arranger and Carmel Dean (Elegies) as vocal arranger and associate music director.
This creative team, along with co-director Michael Unger (sharing the task with Feldman) and choreographer Dan Knechtges, keep the contest moving along with a nice ebb and flow as the characters' back stories weave into the events onstage.
Surprisingly, there's still a delightful improvisational element to the piece. Audience members, chosen as they arrive at the theatre, join the cast on stage to round out the number of contestants. Jay Reiss (another original cast member), Lisa Howard and Derrick Baskin as the Vice Principal, Guidance Counselor and "Comfort Counselor" in charge of the contest adroitly dispatch these extra players without knowing how many rounds it may take to eliminate them.
The third holdover from the original production still appearing onstage is the amazing Dan Fogler. Sometimes invoking the spirit of Bobcat Goldwaith, his little William Barfee worms his way into our hearts like the sorriest looking puppy on his last possible day of reprieve at the pound.
But that's not to say that we only root for the unfortunate Barfee, praying that he won't be felled by another "peanut in the brownies" incident. The great fun of the piece is that we have reason to root for each and every one of them, and our allegiances switch around, especially as we catch glimpses of the best and worst of "modern parenting" shaping these kids behind the scenes.
But while the "Comfort Counselor" (an ex-con doing community service) is a hoot, the other two adults running the contest aren't so engaging when their foibles are exposed. A little more of the parents and a little less of the guidance counselor and vice principal would be my suggestion. My only other quibble is with the coda; although fun, it's an overused device.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee produced by Barrington Stage Company (Julianne Boyd, artistic director) now through August 1 on Stage II of the Consolati Performing Arts Center in Sheffield MA. The performance schedule is Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:30pm with matinees at 3:00pm on Sundays. On the final weekend there will be a 3:00pm matinee on Saturday, July 31st and no evening performance on Sunday, August 1st.
The Box Office at the Consolati Theatre opens an hour before show times. All other times use the Sheffield box office just off Main Street in the center of Sheffield, opposite the Post Office. Tickets are also available by calling 413-528-8888 or online at www.barringtonstageco.org.