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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (05/02/2005 - 01/20/2008)


AP: "'Spelling Bee' Funny, Charming"

Yes, they still can spell strabismus, capybara and phylactery. Those nerdy, geeky kids competing in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" have made the transfer from off-Broadway to the Big Time - Broadway - with their funny, offbeat charm intact.

Indeed the musical, which reopened Monday at Circle in the Square, is better than ever, more heartfelt and overflowing with a generosity of spirit that tempers a tale in which the result has to be bittersweet: Someone wins and someone loses.

But the show, which has a comic, well-crafted book by Rachel Sheinkin and a delightful score by William Finn, is about more than who gets the big prize. The story focuses on growing up, a painful process to which everyone can relate.

Only the contestants in this spelling bee are a bit quirkier than your average high school student. They include the overachiever who secretly wants to underachieve; the lonely girl with a missing mother and father; the bewildered, budding flower child; the overweight fellow with nasal problems; last year's confident champ; and the youngster with pushy, win-at-all-cost parents.

Despite their oddities, these students are linked by their devotion to words - and how to spell them. It's not for nothing that one of Finn's more wistful songs celebrates "My friend, the dictionary." His music has an eccentric likability, a quality found in the show's performers, too.

A standout is Dan Fogler, the young man with mucous membrane difficulties. His insecurities are hilarious – and touching - at the same time. But then all the adult actors who play these children are terrific, going beyond the caricatures these spellers could have become.

And one shouldn't neglect the three performers who portray the adults who monitor the contest, especially Jay Reiss, who, as the school's vice principal and the bee's word pronouncer, gets some of the evening's best lines.

In the musical's Broadway transfer, Reiss now is credited with providing some of the show's material, too.

Much of the fun derives from the structure of a spelling bee itself with its built-in suspense as, one by one, contestants (including several plucked from the audience) are eliminated.

Director James Lapine has done a savvy job of adapting the musical for the new theater, one of Broadway's more eccentric spaces. Circle's playing area resembles an elongated lozenge with the audience sitting on three sides.

For "Spelling Bee," designer Beowulf Boritt has rethought the show's high school gymnasium setting. It's now more environmental, with banners proclaiming "Bully Free Zone" and "Putnam Valley Piranhas 1996 State Middle School Basketball Champions."

And in the theater lobby, there are childhood photos of many of the performers, plus a few pictures of others who had a certain connection to the fine art of spelling. Check out the Dan Quayle display.


New York Daily News: "This 'Bee' still lacks any sting"

Sometimes people worry about whether a show has suffered in its move from Off-Broadway to Broadway.

There's nothing to worry about with "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

In its move from Second Stage on 43rd St. to Circle in the Square on 50th St., not a whit of its artifice or preciousness has been lost.

This is apparent as soon as the mistress of ceremonies, opens the show by spelling "syzygy" - the alignment of three celestial objects, like Earth, sun and moon - the word with which she won the contest a quarter of a century earlier.

The coyness of the writing becomes clear seconds later as we hear the names of the contestants – Leaf Coneybear or Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (her last name is drawn from her two gay fathers).

"Spelling Bee," with a score by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, is an elongated skit. It is hilarious that there is a separate credit for Rebecca Sheinkin, who "conceived" this painfully cutesy farrago.

What is disappointing is that, as anyone who saw the Oscar-nominated documentary "Spellbound" knows, a spelling bee can be extremely dramatic.

There is nothing compelling about "Spelling Bee" because everything in it is forced, including most of the performances. I don't blame the actors - they're simply fulfilling the material.

Two pleasant exceptions are Deborah Craig, as an over-achieving Asian-American, and Celia Keenan-Bolger, who brings genuine poignancy to a girl too poor to afford the entry fee.

The most obnoxious character is a fat boy who dances out the words; he is made even more obnoxious by Dan Fogler, who plays him.

"Spelling Bee" may be even more depressing than "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." That was an intentional piece of fluff. Here there was the possibility of something meaningful, which has been treated as a cartoon.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "Strictly 'Bee' List"

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" - the title tells you the whole story and sets the general tone - opened on Broadway last night following a generally acclaimed run off-Broadway.

Perhaps it should have stayed there. Its intimacy and sly humors might well flourish more readily in an off-Broadway ambiance, but, like Queen Victoria, I was not amused. I was not even entertained.

How do you spell C-L-O-Y-I-N-G?

To be fair, many of my colleagues positively loved the show. They found it charming - and, to a limited extent, I understand. For the most part, the self-satisfied, wiseacre cast is, well, charming. Well, kinda charming.

But it is meant to be a musical. And William ("Falsettos") Finn's lyrics and, most particularly, music are mediocre on a grand scale.

The sounds keep on coming like the U.S. Cavalry, but the tunes seem very much alike in their playful jollity, while at times the piano - it's only a five-piece band - vamps enough to give Theda Bara a run for her money.

The show was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, who wrote the play "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E" upon which it was based, the present book has been written by Rachel Sheinkin, and the show has been sharply and cleverly directed by the venerable James Lapine.

The format has something in common with "A Chorus Line," in that it is basically a series of monologues during which the contestants reveal something of their inner lives.

But "A Chorus Line" had an opening and a finale, the stories were engrossing and the outcome proved compelling.

Here the process is simply a gimmick - adolescents taking part in a preposterously geared spelling bee played by manifestly adult actors. And Finn is no Marvin Hamlisch.

All very camp if you dig that kind of thing, and possibly amusing even if you don't.

As for the script, the humor is partly contained in the unjust contrast between words difficult ("staphylococcus") and easy ("hospital").

There's also humor in the not-so-helpful definitions offered to contestants and especially in the use of any particular word in a sentence, such as "Billy, put down that phylactery - we're Episcopalian."

Some of the characterizations and performances are certainly funny. I enjoyed particularly the plump aplomb of the Falstaffian figure of Dan Fogler as a speller with a nasal drip and a "magic foot" he uses to trace the words on the ground before enunciating the letters.

An awkwardly self-contained Deborah S. Craig was amusing as an Asian-American overachiever deciding to underachieve, and consistently good were the two contestant officials, a splendidly bossy but unctuous commentator Lisa Howard, and Jay Reiss as a smug, game show-like questioner, guardian of the dictionary.

You may well like this show. But if you go, learn how to spell "H-O-P-E-F-U-L," and the best of luck.

New York Post

New York Times: "Six Misfits Test Wits on Bigger Platform"

In the long, exhausting reality show formerly known as life, which cannot be traversed with the aid of TiVo, there are peaks and there are valleys. Qualifying as traditional high points are weddings and children's birthdays, career triumphs, the day you bought those jeans that actually flatter. Adolescence, in its entirety, is generally considered prime valley material.

Certainly, the middle-school days must be dark for the six young misfits testing their wits in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," the effortlessly endearing new musical that opened on Broadway at Circle in the Square last night after a successful run Off Broadway at the Second Stage Theater.

William Barfee is saddled with a chronic sinus condition, a last name that invites pointed mispronunciation (it's supposed to rhyme with parfait, thank you), and a deluded belief that he looks O.K. in shorts. Marcy Park suffers from secret dismay at her own outrageous capability. Who really wants to speak six languages if you can't meet a boy in any of them? Then there's Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, perhaps the most abjectly afflicted: pigtails at an inappropriately advanced age, a mortifying lisp and two gay dads to boot.

And yet a taste of life's glory is not outside the reach of even these miniature eccentrics and their equally odd competitors: mousy Olive Ostrovsky, the permanently flushed Leaf Coneybear and Chip Tolentino, the Boy Scout who has just earned his badge for raging hormones. A trophy from a spelling bee may not carry the social cachet of the homecoming queen's tiara, but small victories are the best most of us can hope for in life, right?

In any case, it's the more private but enduring triumphs - the connection finally made with a member of the opposite sex, the discovery of previously unknown pockets of self-esteem - that are really being celebrated in "Spelling Bee," which itself has graduated with honors from the local competition to the divisional championships. The happy news for this happy-making little show is that the move to larger quarters has dissipated none of its quirky charm.

In fact, the musical has managed to make lemonade from one of Broadway's most lemony spaces. The dreary basement lobby of the Circle in the Square always has, come to think of it, resembled the cinderblock nightmare of a prefab junior high slapped together in the 1960's. Plastering it with peppy posters promoting the French club, and plaques commemorating the mock achievements of the show's creative team, the set designer Beowulf Boritt invests an antiseptic space with cheesy warmth. (Little James Lapine, now a big-shot Broadway director, got the Dewey Decimal Award from the Putnam Librarians Association.) The theater itself, with its rows of steeply raked seats arrayed like bleachers on three sides, has been cleverly transformed into a mock gymnasium, with a basketball court stenciled on a scuffed wooden floor.

Like much else about this lovingly hand-stitched musical, the atmospheric décor should be cute to the point of cloying, but somehow it isn't. Likewise, the recruitment of audience volunteers of all ages to join in the competition still inspires delighted chuckles and palpable suspense, not squirms of irritation. At the reviewed performance, when the last surviving civilian, a shy-looking tyke with shaggy hair, skipped a syllable or two in his last word, the audience slumped and sighed in unison.

Most crucially, the affectionate performances of the six actors burdened with the daunting challenge of inhabiting young souls have not been stretched into grotesque shape by the move to a large theater. Space doesn't permit me to celebrate them individually, as I probably should. But focus on any one of these talented performers, anxiously looking on as a competitor faces down a polysyllabic curveball, and you'll see the twitchy behavior of a real youngster, not actors self-consciously aping youthful mannerisms. Lisa Howard and Jay Reiss, meanwhile, who play the perky but unbending administrators of the bee, are no less skilled at finding the honorable qualities in more mature geekdom.

William Finn's score sounds plumper and more rewarding than it did Off Broadway. If it occasionally suggests a Saturday morning television cartoon set to music by Stephen Sondheim, that's not inappropriate. And Mr. Finn's more wistful songs provide a nice sprinkling of sugar to complement the sass in Rachel Sheinkin's zinger-filled book. Ms. Sheinkin sets off a new comic firecracker every time a contestant furrows a brow and asks to hear a word used in a sentence, in accordance with the rigid bee rules: "Sally's mother told her it was her cystitis that made her special."

As befits a detail-oriented past master of the Dewey Decimal System, in refitting "Spelling Bee" for a larger theater, Mr. Lapine has sharpened all the musical's elements without betraying its appealing modesty. "Spelling Bee" is not extravagant in its aims, but it lives up to its goals in a way that the season's bigger, glitzier and more ambitious musicals mostly don't. Gold stars all around!

New York Times

Newsday: "'Spelling Bee' that works right down to the letter"

The sleeper hit musical of the Off-Broadway season has moved into the big time with all its off-beat charms intact - and then some. "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which opened last night at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre, is not only the most original little-show-that-could since "Avenue Q." As a candid snapshot of the tyranny of winning, this big-hearted tiny musical might remind you of a younger, more adorable companion piece to "A Chorus Line."

Director James Lapine has polished and pumped up the production without losing any of the handmade honesty that made the spelling-bee spoof so endearing. At second hearing, William Finn's score is more complex than its raucous effortlessness suggests. The virtuosic cast members have expanded their heartfelt performances into this big, often difficult theater as if it had been waiting to be transformed into a school gymnasium for just such a county competition.

Here are excerpts from the Feb. 8 review of its Second Stage incarnation. Everything in the Broadway version is the same, only better.

If grown-ups pretending to be children creep you out, audience participation makes you squirm and contests seem too cheesy to use as theater, you've got good taste. On the other hand, good taste has delightfully little to do with "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," the slim but endearingly deranged spelling-bee spoof that opened last night at Second Stage with sugarplums of "Avenue Q" and "Urinetown" dancing in producers' eyes.

Much like those offbeat Broadway hits, the project began life way Off-Broadway. It was by Rebecca Feldman and a group called The Farm. By the time the material was developed at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires, the idea was transformed into a musical with score by William Finn, the Tony Award-winning original of such hilariously heartbreaking musicals as "Falsettos" and "A New Brain."

Where Finn's work tends to make us laugh to keep from sobbing, this 105-minute chamber piece has fizzier trifles and Rachel Sheinkin's smartly goofy book on its twisted little mind. The production, directed with a light hand and a great heart by Finn specialist James Lapine, never loses touch with the anxiety communicated so effectively by "Spellbound," the recent documentary about children and spelling bees.

Lapine always has had a remarkable way of making child actors seem natural. How funny that he also can make grown-up actors play kids without a fleck of the usual patronizing ickiness. Everyone embodies the hopes and mopes with an admirable mix of shamelessness and compassion.

There is a star-making performance by Dan Fogler as William Barfee, introduced as Barf by the assistant principal with the dark history (Reiss) and corrected by the boy "with an accent aigue." The kid is a slob, a big nerdy smarty-pants with a "magic foot" with which he spells out his words on the floor.

We are in a school gym, decorated by Beowulf Boritt almost to smell like old socks yet to promise salvation.

Finn's music is less ambitious than his major work, but simple is never confused with simpleminded. With a small combo in the wings, the smartly innocent lyrics celebrate and mutilate a tiny world "where they treat you well,/ all because we love to spell." None of the children believe that just "being here is winning," but manage to persuade us that such a fantasy is "very nice, very very very nice."

Ditto the show.


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