When Rebecca Feldman suggested to her friends and colleagues that they make a musical out of a junior high spelling bee, they might have been thinking, “Sure, and then how about a musical based on The Diary of Ann Frank, or that creaky old melodrama about the murderous barber of Fleet Street and his meat pies.” But Feldman was the founder and head of a reputable improvisational theatre group called The Farm. So the playwright Rachel Sheinkin agreed to come up with the book, with some tweaks by Jay Reiss. And the quite successful composer and lyricist William Finn started working on the songs. The improv actors developed characters, and Sheinkiin put them in a structure, and Finn gave them songs, and they performed it for a couple summers at the Barrington Stage Company, and then off Broadway, and then on Broadway, with a long run and Tonys, nominations and awards.
And now The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is done everywhere, including at the Tower Grove Abbey by the Stray Dog Theatre.
Director Justin Been has chosen his cast well and guided their performances properly.
That’s not easy. We are watching adults, at least in their 20s, playing junior high kids. A major reason for the play’s success is that each of the contestants has been given a highly individual character. Watching them from our adult point of view, they often are funny in their inexperience and in the ways they maneuver to grow into maturity. Each of the students in the musical is a comic type. But we also recognize in each a real young person, nervous about the contest, uneasy with fellow students, all that adolescent turmoil. In Been’s direction and in the playing of each actor, we see both the comic type and a real person. We laugh at them, but we don’t dismiss them.
Kevin Corpuz is Charlito “Chip” Tolentino, resplendent and proud in his Boy Scout uniform covered with merit badges – Eileen Engel’s costumes are exactly right for each character – winner of last year’s Bee and confident that he will win this one. But adolescent hormones trip him up, and he is one of the first to go. Corpuz’s compensation is that he gets to appear later as Jesus.
Dawn Schmid plays Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the pride of her two fathers, who appear, thanks to doubling by two actors, to cheer her on during the Bee. She’s the youngest contestant, clinging to her little stuffed animal. She expects to be back next year.
Clayton Humburg gives full measure to Leaf Coneybear, ever smiling, ever helpful, ever hopeful, wearing his superhero cape, singing, as his family reminds him, “I’m not that smart.” He’s at the County Bee even though he was third in his local Bee, but the top two couldn’t make it. He goes into a trance to spell and is astounded when told he got it right.
`William Morris Barfee may be the smartest and is certainly the most eccentric of the bunch. Kevin O’Brien makes the most of it, perpetually slumping, ever sure that he has the correct spelling, thanks to his “magic foot,” which spells out the words for him on the floor. He celebrates the foot in song. He also, as the Bee reaches its climax, faces a moral dilemma.
That’s because of the friendship and more that he has suddenly developed with Olive Ostrovsky when they are the last two left. She’s new to spelling bees, but likes to spend time with the dictionary, so she is doing well. She’s anxious about her father, who promised to come but is working late, as always, and her mother is at an ashram in India. Like Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre and with the help again of double-casting, Olive connects with her parents for love and encouragement.
Sara Rae Womack pins her character, Marcy Park, precisely. Marty is sure of herself and therefore able to relate to others with no sense of rivalry. She speaks six languages, is a member of an all-American hockey team and a championship rugby player, performs Chopin and Mozart on multiple instruments. sleeps only three hours a night, hides in the bathroom cabinet, and is getting very tired of always winning.
Rona Lisa Peretti presides over the Bee as moderator, as in the past. She is the number-one realtor in Putnam County, and she won the Third Putnam County Spelling Bee twenty-two years ago. She still enjoys the thrill of the competition and the excitement of the young people. Stephanie Merritt gives her the right balance of maternal affection and control.
Jason Meyers also hits the right balance for Vice Principal Douglas Panch as the judge, who pronounces the words, defines them, uses them in a sentence, and decides if the contestant has spelled the word correctly. He also has an obvious non-professional interest in Ms. Peretti.
Chris Kernan plays Mitch Mahoney, the Official Comfort Counselor. He sees the losers gently off the stage, handing them a juice box as they go. It’s his Community Service at the end of his sentence, and he does it well.
Always at the Bee audience members are among the contestants, four of them the night I was there. Mostly they have softball spelling pitched to them until it is time for them to go, and then they get something impossible. The four I saw seemed to enjoy being part of the show.
Music director Leah Schultz leads from the piano, with splendid work also from Kelly Austermann on reeds and Joe Winters on percussion.
Michael Hodges choreographed the occasional, lively dances in the show. Director Been’s scenic design featured a large banner announcing the Bee, with a huge trophy for the winner. Tyler Duenow designed lights, and Jacob Baxley the sound.
Played properly, as it is at Stray Dog, The Putnam County Spelling Bee takes on considerable substance without losing its light and amusing touch. It’s a very enjoyable way to spend an evening.
Photo by John Lamb