blessed with impeccable timing, The 25th Annual Putnam
County Spelling Bee is a Tony-winning trifle
that prompts smiles but few guffaws.
Currently on tour
in Los Angeles with the original Broadway cast in tow,
the musical is even more prescient than when it premiered
two years ago. ABC airs the Scripps National Spelling
Bee on May 31, and three bee
films--Spellbound, Bee Season, and
Akeelah and the Bee--have arrived in
theaters in the last few years.
Putnam County Spelling Bee rides this wave,
presenting likable losers who, like most Americans, are
desperate to win. Before we meet the motley crew,
Beowulf Boritt's stage design effectively sets
the mood with giant hanging banners that turn the Wadsworth
Theater into a sterile high school gymnasium.
We are introduced
to the stiff but pleasant bee host, Rona Lisa Peretti
(Lisa Howard, looking and sounding like Megan Mullally doing
a sober take on Karen Walker). Rounding out the adults
are creepy vice principal Douglas Panch (Jay Reiss)
and the inadvertently offensive character of Mitch
(Derrick Baskin), an African-American ex-con who as part of
his community service shuffles the kids away after
they miss a word. Mitch speaks in Ebonics and dresses
like a gangster; he's a weird Shirley Q.
Liquor-esque character that serves no purpose other
than to provide laughs at his expense.
Top row (from left): Jose Llana as Chip Tolentino,
Deborah S. Craig as Marcy Park, Jesse Tyler Ferguson as
Leaf Coneybear Bottom row (from left): Celia
Keenan-Bolger as Olive Ostrovsky, Dan Fogler as
William Barfee, Sarah Saltzberg as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre
Many of the kids
are also easy targets: an eerily perfect Asian girl, a
young hippie from Topanga who speaks in stoner vernacular,
and a homely young lady--head of her
school's gay-straight alliance--who has two
pushy, queeny dads. Yawn.
The other bee
contestants are more well-rounded. Jose Llana portrays
"alpha male" Chip, an insecure horndog of unclear racial
origins. There's also Olive, a sensitive,
neglected sweetheart played by Celia Keenan-Bolger,
and last but not least, the disheveled dork William Barfee
(pronounced "Barfy" by everyone, including the grown-ups).
William is played
by Dan Fogler, who won a Tony for his performance, and
in L.A. you could see why. His acting is a continuous event.
Even when the spotlight is off him William continues
to tug at his greasy hair, wipe his nose on his hand,
and fidget like a hyperactive toddler. Fogler is
chunky but moves like Baryshnikov, especially during his
piece de resistance, "Magic
Foot." The song, about how William uses his toes to
draw out words on the floor before spelling them out loud,
is the show's finest moment--it's
joyous, unexpected, and funny.
The remainder of
the show is certainly amusing, with updated riffs on
Bush and Paris Hilton, but the jokes are rarely
original or sophisticated. The older crowd and the
younger set were in stitches, but the 18- to
65-year-olds were feasting not quite on scraps;
maybe lukewarm hors d'oeuvres.