Reviewed by Will Stackman
What's most surprising about "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is that this cinfection won the 2004 Tony for Best Book For A musical show. This 90 minute piece is more like a series of sketches on a TV variety show arranged in chronological order. William Finn's score consequently functions more like a song-cycle or an integrated musical review. The characters are cartoonlike, which is what one would expect from a project that began as an improv show, "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E," conceived by Rebecca Feldman and performed by the Farm. The total effect is a bit mean-spirited, like much quick comedy, relying on broad impersonations. The children at this Bee are all idiosyncratic--to say the least--with their intellectual abilities seen as part of abnormal personalities. That each theoretically learns something about themselves is supposed to justify the public humiliation implied. The fact that there's not one hypothetically normal contestant reinforces the view that intelligence is probably a social handicap.
That said, James Lapine's enlargement of the original off-Broadway production, which originated at the Barrington Stage Company in western Massachusetts, is a blueprint for turning a little show into something big enough to put on a standard Broadway stage. True, Boston's Wilbur is the smallest of the town's legacy stages and only the orchestra and the mezzanine balcony are being used for this production, which began its open-ended run early in the fall season. But the staging is crisp; Beowulf Boritt's set provides depth when appropriate while keeping the action tight and downstage center. At the piano stage left, music director Janet Roma, one of Boston's most flexible, is in tight control of the show aided by video and backed by a small ensemble discretely just offstage. Jennifer Caprio's costumes, done for the Barrington production, are central to the stereotyped characterizations.
The current cast, several of whom have participated in runs elsewhere and on tour, form a polished ensemble and do their best to bring their charges to life. The center of the action is Jared Gertener as William Barfee, a health-challenged know-it-all, whose "magic foot" enables him to spell words out with a peculiar dance step. His closest rival, previously seen here two years ago in Stoneham's "Lizzie Borden", is Sarah Inbar as Logainne Schwartzandgrubniere, who has two daddies. But he falls for Olive Ostrovsky, played by Jenni Barber. Olive is the closet to a normal pre-teen in the show, though she's wearing pink overalls and her mother_s off in India at an ashram.
The other three students include Stanley Bahorek as homeschooler Leaf Coneybear, one of a large hippie clan theoretically seated in all of the third row. The show starts off with Chip Tolentino, wearing his Scout uniform, played by Aaron J. Albano, who's the first real contestant eliminated but not really gone. His funniest routine is pelting the audience with snacks during the show's faux intermission. Finally there's Marcy Park, also in uniform , as a Korean parochial school whiz played by Veronica Reyes. Each of these young musical comedy performers brings considerable charm to their essentially one-note roles. The adults in the show are a former winner, Rona Lisa Peretti--now in real estate--played by Elsa Carmona who serves the contest moderator, New York veteran Daniel Pearce as Daniel Panch, the vice-principal who reads the words and their definitions, and James Monroe Igleheart as Mitch Maloney, who doing his community service as the contest's comfort councilor. Igleheart and Bahorek also play Logainne's fathers, while Igleheart and Carmona briefly appear as Olive's parents.
Finn's music for this misfit ensemble isn't as challenging as some of his earlier projects but it does have an appropriate sense of fun. Like the cast, the score doesn't have much of a center. The individual stories of the several characters are supported by a few numbers, but in general the whole thing is an entertainment rather than a drama, a gentle parody without much insight. There are few surprises. Everyone's oddities are front and center, there's very little to be discovered, which make the growing self-awareness of the contestants seem a bit forced. Like these kids, "...Spelling Bee" wants to be liked, but doesn't seem sure it should be. The show is however likely to become a favorite for small productions, both professional and amateur.