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Forgettable fun 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.