Broadway smash The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee is something less than smashing in a new co-production between New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse and Philadelphia Theatre Company on the Avenue of the Arts.
Spelling Bee is essentially a coming-of-age tale, set (as one might expect from the title) at a middle-school spelling bee in a nicely realized school gymnasium as entrants (half a dozen actors plus a few civilians chosen from the audience) compete for a spot in the national bee. These kids have spent years being shunned by the jocks and cheerleaders—the action even takes place under banners celebrating athletics—and this seems like their one shot at their 15 minutes.
The first to capture our attention is Olive (Ali Stroker), who is confined to a wheelchair. Olive’s parents seem to have little interest in her—not only are they not in attendance, they didn’t even pony up her $25 entrance fee. Olive, like most of the contestants, has few friends, and explains that her best friend growing up was Webster—as in the dictionary.
Other spellers: Chip (Brandon Yanez) is the defending champion, but the year that’s gone by has dropped him into the hormonal swamp of puberty. He’s now easily distracted, particularly by the pretty girl in the front row. Brash, confident Barfée (Will Blum) uses his “magic foot” to spell out words across the gym floor in a kind of linguistic ballet. Glum Marcy (Olivia Oguma) is cracking under her overbearing parents’ expectations and more interested in getting the bee over with than winning. Clad in all manner of rainbow pins is Logaine (Ephie Aardema), head of the gay-straight alliance at her school, whose two dads are willing to do anything to secure victory. Last is Leaf (the delightful Lyle Colby Mackston), repeatedly told by his siblings that he is stupid and seemingly lacking the self-confidence to bring home the trophy.
Unfortunately, Mackston is the only young actor to give an original performance. When Leaf spells a word correctly (by falling into a bizarre trance), he seems genuinely surprised; his song “I’m Not That Smart” could be performed as a plea for our sympathy, but Mackston turns the song inward as Leaf muses about his perceived shortcomings and unusual spelling ability. On the strength of Mackston’s performance, Leaf emerges as an interesting, complex character.
The performers are not the real stars of Spelling Bee , though—that’s librettist Rachel Sheinkin and her amusing book. Instead of the usual stage directions that dictate every moment of a play, her script includes sections of improvisation, which lends a spontaneity not generally found in musicals. It’s especially evident in the cast’s quick-witted interactions with audience-member contestants. Many of the younger actors seem to struggle with the lack of structure, but the more experienced ones clearly relish the freedom.
The not-so-strong performances by the younger actors get little help from Bruni’s production, too. No greater sense of community is developed among this group of outsiders, and its absence is felt. The staging reduces the show to a collection of individual songs and performances that are fine on their own but never quite come together—and the overemphasis on the characters’ estrangement makes William Finn’s score and lyrics seem more disjointed than they already are.
The songs themselves aren’t bad, but are disappointing considering Finn’s strong track record of the AIDS drama Falsettos , which won him Tonies for best book and best original score, and Elegies: A Song Cycle , which PTC mounted in a beautiful 2005 production. Compared to them, Spelling Bee lacks dimension—the songs are cute, but little more.
Sheinkin’s book isn’t perfect, either. The first hour zips along and the improv sections are fun, but instead of building momentum to the climax, there’s a side trip to India, a duet accompanied by flashing disco balls and a sudden appearance by Jesus (seemingly for no other reason than the incorrect assumption that a messiah in a gymnasium is intrinsically hilarious).
Spelling Bee regains its footing in the final moments with a surprisingly sweet gesture that’s likely to leave all but the most cynical exiting the theater feeling warm and fuzzy. Overall, though, the cast is average to above-average—and considering we are at PTC, where the acting is typically exceptional, “good enough” just isn’t what you come in expecting to see. Maybe it’s the influence of co-producer Paper Mill Playhouse, where the production will move after its Philly run—regardless, the performances (and the direction, for that matter) are not up to PTC’s usual standard.
The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee
Through Dec. 12.
Suzanne Roberts Theatre,
Broad and Lombard sts.
Calendar: Sept. 30-Oct. 7