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Monday, 29 November 1999 18:00

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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The Fox Theatre

Through May 20, 2007
Reviewed by Chuck Lavazzi
As we were leaving the theatre after the opening night performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, my companion noted that "there are some shows that make you say 'oh, wow!'.  This wasn't one of them".  To which I added that there were also some shows that make you say, "I want my two hours back".  This wasn't one of them, either.

That puts us squarely against the mainstream of critical opinion, which has been saying "oh, wow" since the show opened at New York's Circle in the Square Theatre just over two years ago.  Even the normally jaded New York Times referred to the show's "appealing modesty" and awarded "gold stars all around".  For me, however, Spelling Bee isn't quite modest enough.  Indeed, when you consider the show's running time (1:45 with no intermission), the number of songs and their length, and the sheer volume of juvenile sexual humor, Spelling Bee is about as modest as Rush Limbaugh's self image.

Happily, it's much more entertaining.

Although now fitted out with eclectic music and sharp lyrics by William Finn - a composer who deserves a far wider audience than he has yet received - Spelling Bee started life as a C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, a non-musical one-act about kids competing in a regional spelling bee by the New York-based improv group The Farm.  The late Wendy Wasserstein caught a performance, recommended it to Finn and the rest is history - or at least an article on Wikipedia.

The show's sketch origins are still visible in both its episodic structure - which is not necessarily a good thing - and its focus on the inner and outer lives of its eccentric characters - which turns out to be a very good thing, indeed.  Spelling Bee works best when it focuses on its geeky but endearing kids as they make their way through a minefield of parental disapproval, social awkwardness, self-doubt and fumbling sexual awareness.

In other words, adolescence.

The current tour, which was launched in Baltimore last September, boasts a solid, energetic and immensely talented cast without a single weak link.  The six adult actors playing the kids are especially impressive.  You know they're all old enough to have a drink afterwards, but from the moment they appear on stage you'd swear none of them are even eligible for a learner's permit.  

Katie Boren has some of the flashiest moments as Marcy Park, who finds perfection an unbearable burden; it's not surprising to learn that she's also the dance captain.  Eric Petersen, as the allergy-afflicted William Barfée (mispronunciation of his name is one of those jokes that goes on too long) has some great moves as well, as he demonstrates the character's "magic foot" spelling method.  

On Broadway, Sarah Stiles understudied the role of Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre - an unapologetic and endearing leftie with two daddies.  If her dynamic performance here is any indication, that time was well spent.  Miguel Cervantes is very funny as the testosterone-crazed and possibly closeted Chip Tolentino, whose attempts to hide an unexpected woody result in his ejection from the bee and his show-stopping song, "My Unfortunate Erection", during which he throws candy and snacks at the audience.  The omega to his alpha is second-generation flower child Leaf Conybear, hilariously portrayed in all his spacey, schizoid glory Michael Zahler.

(Why "schizoid"?  Because Leaf's spelling gimmick involves releasing an alternate demonic personality who's also a wizard speller.  Subtlety is not one of this show's major virtues.)

(But I digress.)

The most winning of the characters is Olive Ostrovsky, saddled with personal modesty, a father too busy to pay her entry fee, and a mother who has spent the last nine months "finding herself" in India.  She could be cloying in the wrong hands, but Lauren Worsham's hands are clearly the right ones, and the results are utterly charming.

The remaining three actors take on all the adult roles and they, too, are uniformly impressive.  Sally Wilfert is fine Rona Lisa Peretti, the spelling bee moderator and former champ and the Number One Realtor in Putnam County, as well as Olive's idealized mom.  James Kall is amusingly uptight as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who is now in a "better place" thanks to Jungian analysis and fiber.  Alan H. Green shows great versatility in multiple roles.  Primarily, he's Mitch Mahoney, working off his community service time as the official "comfort counselor" for spellers as they're eliminated, but he's also one of Lisa's two dads, Olive's ideal father, and (as if that weren't enough), The Voice of Jesus.

From parolee to Holy Ghost in one show - not shabby.

Keyboardist Jodie Moore expertly directs the small combo from the stage where she is plays the spelling bee's resident pianist.  Direction by Broadway veteran James Lapine and choreography by Dan Knechtges are snappy and fluid, but the show tends to sag a bit towards the end nonetheless, like a sketch that has gone on just a bit too long.  

Perhaps it's just the inevitable result of moving from the 300-seat Circle in the Square to the 5000-seat Fox; the loss of intimacy has a distancing effect that's hard to erase.  The built-in audience participation gimmick, in which four volunteers from the house are chosen to be "guest spellers", helps to dispel some of that, but ultimately this may just be the kind of show that will only flourish in more intimate regional theatre spaces like our own Loretto-Hilton Center or the Grandel.

But you needn't take my word for it. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be at the Fox in Grand Center through the 20th.  Call 314-534-1111 for ticket information.  Be advised, by the way, that despite the apparently kid-friendly theme, much of the show's humor is of the decidedly adult variety, so you might want to keep the pre-teens at home.

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