It doesn't seem like an auspicious beginning to a Broadway musical. A spelling bee? C'mon! Although ...
... Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical, "State Fair" poses the question of who will win the coveted Blue Ribbon in the "Prize Hog" competition. I mean, at least our contestants can spell. Ask a hog to spell "weltanschauung" and all you get is a snort.
"Charming" is my impression of these eccentric, (mostly) middle school characters. Although an obsession with spelling esoterica is their common denominator, each contestant is distinguished by an idiosyncratic blend of temperament, family history and unusual hobbies. Therein lies the story.
Structurally and thematically, "Spelling Bee" is similar to "A Chorus Line", but a lot funnier. Book writer Rachel Sheinkin handles pathos and comedy with equal skill in this fast-paced show. The same is true of composer/lyricist William Finn ("March of the Falsettos", "A New Brain").
This contest is not exactly the Super Bowl of spelling bees, but don't tell that to the competitors. For them:
It's a very big
Simple, but it's not
It's a very big undertaking.
While other school mates hone their blocking skills on the football field, these kids tackle words like "acouchi" and "crepuscular" in practice, so they can breeze through the actual bee with apparently ease.
Natalie Sannes portrays Olive Ostrovsky. As a child, Olive developed the habit of studying the family's oversized dictionary while sitting on the toilet. Doesn't everybody? Her song, "I Love My Dictionary" expresses the sense of security she derives from the book.
Every word's in
Ergo lost things
Always can be found.
Some words may be tricky to spell, but at least they don't abandon you by trotting off to India, like her mother did. Sannes's anguished performance of "The I Love You" song, is met with thunderous applause. Bravo, Natalie!
Other members of this subculture take comfort in the orderliness and predictability of the dictionary. Outside the bee, life can be unkind. They lament:
Life is random and unfair.
Life is pandemonium.
"Pandemonium" is one of many get-up-and-dance songs in Finn's score. Ellen Isom provides inspired choreography for this number and others. It must take hours of rehearsal to master such meticulously choreographed pandemonium. The whole cast shines. It's satisfying to see these timid characters shake it up and cut loose for a change. Under the musical direction of Larry Pry, the onstage 3-piece band provides a full-bodied sound. Pry and the other musicians demonstrate versatility and enthusiasm.
Leaf Coneybear (Kevin P. Lusk) serves as a last-minute substitute at the bee. He takes pride in his long, flaming red hair, but questions his intellectual prowess. "I'm Not That Smart" he unabashedly sings. Smart or not, he loves to toss his hair which is "pleasant to the touch". His goofiness is endearing, but when push comes to shove, Coneybear puts on the brakes and falls into a self-induced trance to visualize the correct spelling of each word. Lusk nails this role. I can't help grinning throughout his performance. Encore!
Schwartzy (Sarah Griffith), the youngest contestant, has a pronounced lisp and a pair of perfectionistic gay fathers. She's almost imploding from the pressure. Both dads seem to be stage mothers who hate losers. "God hates losers," one of them explains. Griffith captures our sympathy in her song, "Woe is Me".
Inexplicably clad in a scout uniform, Chip Tolentino (Robert C. Distasio) was last year's spelling champ. His skills are still sharp, but his pubertized body betrays him. During a crucial moment in the bee, Chip's concentration is broken by the sight of a pretty girl in the audience. "My Unfortunate Erection" is Chip's melodic lament. As he explains, his brain becomes addled when "[his] unfortunate protuberance seems to have its own exuberance." Flustered, he misspells a word early in the bee. The remaining contestants can't help smiling when last year's champ becomes this year's chump. Distasio milks the song. Hilarious!
This SLU Theatre production is outstanding in every respect -- singing, dancing, acting, creative design. Under the direction of comic genius, Alan Knoll, the comedy is perfectly calibrated and the staging is flawless. As usual, Lou Bird's costume design is right on the money. What a delightful show!
Maddie K. Spruce plays Marcy Park. Marcy is more than a champion speller, she is an all-around prodigy who speaks six languages, plays piano and excels at hockey and rugby. She's the girl in school that everybody loves to hate.
William Barfee (Zachary Strehlau) is the quintessential nerd. The body he inhabits seems one size too large for his skeleton. Now, picture this hulk in a brownish sweater vest over a short-sleeve plaid shirt with shirttails hanging down over his wrinkled pants. Barfee doesn't walk; he galumphs.
With a slightly strangulated voice and air of feigned arrogance, Strehlau's portrayal is painfully realistic. At times, his acting seems over-the-top, but honestly, don't we all know somebody who behaves like this?
Barfee summons his Muse via his "magic foot". Before spelling each word aloud, he inscribes it onto the floor with his foot. Only then does he read aloud his invisible to-everyone-but-him pedal penmanship. He demonstrates this technique in a vaudeville style song-and-dance number. "Magic Foot" is a show-stopper.
Why would anybody subject themselves to hours of rigorous dictionary memorization? The answers may vary somewhat, but as Olive suggests, "The words in the dictionary / Are the friends I'll have forever ... My friend the dictionary is a very reliable friend."
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" runs through, Sunday, March 3 2013 at the Saint Louis University Theatre, located at 3733 West Pine Mall, 63103 - Xavier Hall . Allow extra time to find this building on campus. The box office can be reached at 314-977-3327