Reviewed by David Spencer
The press and the public have so warmly embraced this goofy little musical that I don't feel my being one of the few naysayers will have any power to stop you seeing it. Nor would I want it to. Nor is mine such a damning or unmixed nay that it should. Truth is, there is some expert showmanship here, and a lot to like, should it be your thing (and that is a key issue; taste plays a strong part in your enjoyment or disappointment); but one of the emperors involved has no clothes and I just kind of want to point out that you're being mooned.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (heretofore 25APCSB) is what I call a gestalt musical. Rather than follow one person on a quest, it presents us with a number of characters who all want the same thing, rather in the manner of "A Chorus Line". In that classic (scheduled for imminent revival, by the way) a group of dancers are vying for a limited number of jobs in an upcoming musical. In "25APCSB", high school kids are competing for first prize at the event of the title. ("God I hope I spell it"?)
Under the "controlled frenetic" direction of James Lapine, the playing style and pacing resemble nothing so much as a higher order of sketch comedy, like watching the best "Saturday Night Live" alumni play adolescent children. Indeed, here too, young adults exaggerate and riff on the characteristics of certain archetypes. Jesse Tyler Fergusen is the idiot savant nerd with an abstracted air who can do nothing but spell. Deborah S. Craig is the over-achieving Korean girl. Sarah Saltzberg is the adopted kid with a lisp, whose (gay) parents have imbued her with the notion that trying your best just isn't, sorry, as good as winning, and won't rate the same parental approval. Dan Fogler is the fat, obnoxious braniac with too many allergies and maybe one and a half social skills. Celia Keenan-Bolger is the forlorn "I got here by bus" kid whose dad is supposed to show up later to lend support -- and pay the entrance fee. Jose Llana is the competitive kid of some Romance ethnicity (the character name is Italian, Mr. Llana is clearly Latino), which may be fitting, as his most profound competition seems to be the one between his brain and his cock, which tends to spring erect uncontrollably when girls he finds attractive start to invade his senses. And the script is built to accommodate, at each performance, a trio of genuine audience members, who play along (it's not hard to get the hang of the routine) and compete honestly for as long as they can. (Their words are selected to be as easy or as difficult as they need to be, depending on the laugh desired and when the stage needs to hold fewer contestants; but I must add, on the night I attended, one of the ringers was an actual 12-year old kid, and he spelled with surprising, amusing and self-effacing expertise. It got so that he was called upon several times in a row before he was finally stumped and the play could move on. I hasten to add, the audience loved this.)
Add Lisa Howard as compassionate teacher in charge, for whom this is a career highlight; Jay Reiss as a square-minded vice-principal making a post-breakdown comeback, acting as emcee and rule enforcer; and Derrick Baskin as the student homeboy, there to offer losers consolation, a juice box and a friendly (if firm) escort out -- and you have some idea of the tone: wild, shameless and broad.
And again, if this is the kind of thing you'd enjoy seeing lampooned, it works great. (Not my kind of thing, but that doesn't matter.) The book's comedy is sharp, balancing familiar archetypes with unfamiliar spins and gratifying reversals. Especially fun are the competition words as "used in a sentence" (upon request of course).
So exactly why am I so sour about this essentially harmless, essentially silly little show that so many people adore?
The score by William Finn.
It's about the laziest score by an acclaimed writer I've ever heard.
In a recent print interview, Finn described a writing process that is painfully methodical...yet the ear can't help but suspect that Mr. Finn tends to at least conceive his music and lyrics in a breathless white heat, which would explain their propensity to tumble out in an unconstrained flood of insistently repeated phrases and motifs, irregular phrase lengths, time signature shifts, and style-tics that cling desperately to an idee fixe, from which it sounds as if he's afraid to stray. But unlike his score for "Falsettos", the one for "25APCSB" doesn't have organic substance to compensate for compositional and lyrical dishevelment. In fact, the score of "25APCB" doesn't even have its own project-specific sound. It sounds, instead, like Finn on automatic pilot -- '70s pop-rock riffs, push-beat vamps, eighth-note chunk chords, happytime harmonies filling the air assaultively -- and comes off like outtakes from the worst of his "Falsettos" first drafts. (I hasten to add, I rather like the score for "Falsettos".) It's filler that perhaps gives the proceedings a sense of the musical buoyancy they need (most of the score tends to be energetic and bouncy): but it could be removed from the play without much loss to characterization or subtext; again, it's slight, superficial and, at least to the ear, if not in the actual creation, slothful.
And the truth is, when you corner people who love the show, many of them admit, "Well, the score was the weakest part."
And that's why here and there, a few of us observers and patrons have been a little less than enthused. I just thought I'd spell it out for you...