THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE @ Barrington Stage Company
Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Co-Directed by Michael Unger and Rebecca Feldman
Choreographed by Dan Knechtges, Musical Director Vadim Feichtner, Set Design by Beowulf Borritt, Costumes by Jennifer Caprio, Lighting by Tyler Micoleau, Sound Design by Randy Hansen, Production Stage Manager Angela De Gregoria, Producer Dana Harrel, Managing Director Mitch Weiss, Artistic Director Julianne Boyd
(Reviews Below Slideshow)
In a word, ‘Spelling’ is marvelous
By Ed Siegel, Globe Staff | July 20, 2004
SHEFFIELD — “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has everything a rollicking musical should have: wit and grace, heart and soul, charm and a bit of a bite. None of these attributes will be surprising to fans of William Finn (“Falsettos,” “Elegies”), who wrote the music and lyrics. What is something of a surprise, though, is that the songs are really the sidekicks to the delightful book by Rachel Sheinkin, a Brooklyn playwright and librettist, whose crisp writing and wide-ranging humor keep the proceedings lithe and lively.
As you can guess from the title, the musical concerns the competitive world of school spelling bees, as six enormously talented actors do battle with one another, their own adolescent demons, and spellers from the audience.
Sheinkin is politically incorrect enough to have fun with brainiac stereotypes — the lispers and the cross-eyed, the boy who’s done in by his erection and the fat kid who knows he’s the smartest of the bunch (“I’m the Yankees, not the Red Sox”). At the same time, her fondness for each character is so obvious that it’s hard to imagine many will be offended at touches such as the lisping girl, Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre, getting the word “cystitis.”
And how can you be offended when the show is so marvelously executed? The all-adult cast is letter-perfect, but Dan Fogler as the weighty William Barfee is hysterical, dancing out each word he spells and reminding us of kids we used to love to hate.
Directors Michael Unger and Rebecca Feldman use the company’s Stage II as a transformed gym. The students pull at their unfashionable stockings or their hair trying to come up with the right spelling, but Finn’s and Sheinkin’s sympathies are with them. A girl is given “chimera” to spell, which leads to a touching song about the love she imagines from her self-centered parents.
Finn’s music, which works seamlessly with the book, is his usual mix of Stephen Sondheim and Randy Newman, with big up-tempo numbers like “Pandemonium” that allow the whole cast to go a little crazy, as well as the pretty but sad “The I Love You Song.”
In any case, we haven’t heard the last from William Barfee and company. They’re likely to be casting their spell, sans spell-check, for years to come.
By FRANK RIZZO
In “The 25th Annual Putnam County Bee,” receiving its world preem at Barrington Stage Co., Finn turns to a special kind of American ritualistic self-abuse known as the spelling bee and creates one of the funniest, sweetest and quirkiest small-scale musicals to come along in a long time. It’s destined to have a life on many professional and amateur stages alike.
Six adult actors playing bright young bulbs — joined by four audience members at every perf — struggle with their pubescent insecurities as they get swept up in the great American quest to be the last speller standing. (At the perf reviewed, New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin was plucked from the aud. He did well among his competitors and took defeat gracefully, along with his consolation prize of apple juice.)
The pleasure quotient remains high throughout the intermissionless show. With a splendid cast, terrific music and savvy writing and direction, “Spelling Bee” shows how to produce a musical “in an alphabetter way.”
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’: A contest in which even the losers are winners
By Jeffrey Borak
SHEFFIELD — H-O-M-E-R-I-C L-A-U-G-H-T-E-R: laughter that is uproarious and irrepressible. It also can be E-P-I-D-E-M-I-C. If you want proof, you need only wander down to Barrington Stage Company’s Stage II — if you can get a seat — where you’ll find an awful lot of people C-A-C-H-I-N-A-T-I-N-G for a solid 100 minutes or so.
The cause of all this M-I-R-T-H and R-A-P-T-U-R-E is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a new musical created by a team of divine madmen and women — William Finn, music and lyrics; Rachel Sheinkin, book; Rebecca Feldman, who conceived this material in an earlier non-musical version with an off-Broadway company, The Farm, and who co-directed this production with Michael Unger; choreographer Dan Knechtges; and music director Vadim Feichtner.
At first glance, it would seem easy to assign dislikes and sympathies. Ah, but how each of these characters reveal themselves. What we find instead is a group of characters who are endearing and irresistible. (I dare anyone to resist, for example, a scene between the ego-inflated Barfee and the timorous Olive during a break in the contest). In that regard, even the losers are winners.
Life may be pandemonium, as the kids sing in one of this musical’s most ebullient moments, but life also is filled with surprises, with acts of personal courage in which individuals discover who they really are and then act upon it.
Neither “Spelling Bee’s” creators nor this cast make it easy either to predict the outcome or to pick a favorite. As contestants drop out one by one, we feel their loss, their absence. These characters each have been created with compassion and respect. The humor here is not at anyone’s expense; rather it is shrewdly observed, wonderfully antic, and, in many ways, daring.
“Spelling Bee” is the product of tremendously smart minds who have created characters that are fully dimensional and distinctly individual in ways that go well beyond their idiosyncratic methods for arriving at the correct spelling of a word.
The production moves smoothly and effortlessly across an impressive setting by Beowulf Boritt that redefines BSC’s Stage II space and embraces the entire room.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is at Barrington Stage only through Aug. 1. With any luck, it will be back. Better yet, with any luck “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will enjoy never-ending F-L-O-R-E-S-C-E-N-C-E.
Reviewed By: Sandy MacDonald
Quick, count on your fingers — one hand might suffice — the shows you’ve seen that were so enchanting, you savored every moment and prayed that the curtain call would never come. Now get ready for another: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which recently debuted at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires. The whole thing clicks and hums — and surprises — like an especially ingenious cuckoo clock.
If two hours of solid laughter strikes you as a worthwhile prospect, rush out to the Berkshires — or pray that this utterly perfect production will soon make it to Manhattan.
If you bring tissues to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, you’ll be using them strictly to wipe away tears of laughter. This is essentially a light-hearted, feel-good show that prompts such easy to spell adjectives as charming, sweet, endearing and quirky.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is not only blessed with Mr. Finn’s bouncy melodies and clever character building lyrics, but an ensemble that fully inhabits those characters.
While I’m not generally enamored of adults playing children, all these twenty-somethings are enjoyably full of over the top twelve-year old ticks. While the show has a casual let’s put on a show feel, make no mistake about it — this is a real musical. It’s chamber sized, with an “orchestra” consisting of a piano and minimal choreography, but all the songs are well integrated to allow the students taking their turn at the microphone to weave bits and pieces of back story into the contest set-up.
Is this world premiere destined for a bigger things.