AISLE SAY Florida
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Added Material by Jay Reiss
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Directed by James Lapine
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall,
December 26-29, '07
Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker
Despite William Finn's fun lyrics and apt music, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee doesn't project the quality of a Tony Award winner. It isn't as "big" as most shows that go on national tour either. More like a high school Chorus Line cooked up by college frosh, it satirizes a too-earnest competition among teens. But there's an underlying anti-intellectual current. The smart competitors seem to be oddballs. Hostess Rona Peretti, a former spelling champ, and "caller" Douglas Panch, Vice Principal--even as amiably portrayed by Roberta Duchak and James Kall--come off as also rans in the game of life. Kevin Smith Kirkwood, as African American druggie Mitch Mahoney working off a community service sentence, is first personality-wise among representatives of ethnic and other types. He occasionally grumbles but not when he escorts losers off-stage.
Katie Boren fits into her pinafore and bobby sox as typical Asian American whiz kid Marcy. Andrew Keenan-Bolger's hippie-raised Leaf Coneybear seems amazed to be taking part. Though Justin Keyes' Chip feigns Boy Scout assuredness, he's upset over having an excited erection and covers up with a box of peanuts and candy he'll sell at intermission. Vanessa Ray plays retiring Olive, whose separately travelling parents never show up. (Mom is at an Ashram in India.) Dana Steingold shows Logaine Schwartzandgrubenierre's pride in her sexually comprehensive school club. Jewish William Barfee (Eric Roediger, going all out for pathos) may be fat and messy, but can he ever dance one-footed correct spellings! The obvious group unrepresented, Hispanics, may be included among four pre-screened audience members, who take part in the bee with predictable results. The only dramatic suspense comes down to who will win the bee. Big deal.
Slanting arches frame Beowulf Boritt's simple gymnasium set with slightly askew risers on one side of the stage and, on the other, the administrators' table with a piano in back. Jodie Moore plays that piano as well as conducting four other musicians, as unseen as numerous related music, dance, and production providers. Natasha Katz's lighting uses fluorescents well. Instead of an intermission, the audience is treated to Chip throwing out, as if selling, packs of peanuts, candies, crackers about an hour into a one hour and forty-five minute performance.