Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, February 2004

This show is everything you would expect a musical about a spelling bee to be. It is tuneful and cheerful. Each character gets a little moment – a little scene and song – to explain themselves and ingratiate themselves into our hearts. If anything, the show is too cute, but there is room in the world for at least one cute, sweet musical about 10-12 years competing for a county spelling championship, especially when it has music and lyrics by award winning composer William Finn.

What Barrington Stage has mounted this winter is a workshop production (they have a full production scheduled in July). Things are not perfect and things are probably changing from one performance to the next, which leads to a certain tentativeness in the performers. Also, they throw in the wild card of five contestants chosen at random from the audience at each show, and you are guaranteed not to see the same show twice.

Putnam County, New York is a tiny swatch of land sandwiched between the Hudson River and the Connecticut border. It is bounded by the cluttered suburbia of Westchester County to the south and the rolling horse farms of Dutchess County to the north. Even though my family drove through Putnam County every Friday and Sunday on our weekly treks between New York City and northwestern Connecticut, I was always surprised to find it was there. So this is spelling bee competition on a fairly small level. Although reference is made to the champion going to the nationals, that cannot be right. In reality, there must be a state level in between county and national competitions.

So here we find assembled, ostensibly in the Garrison High School auditorium, the best 10-12 year old spellers from schools in the six towns and three villages in Putnam County, New York. They are a quirky lot, plagued by all the usual angst of early adolescence as well as the stress of competition. Beth Margolies (played by Rebecca Feldman who has co-directed with Michael Barakiva and is given credit for the conception of the show) is a shy young lady whose parents never show up for her competitions. William Barfee (Dan Fogler) is an uber-nerd, fascinated by Sea Cucumbers and obsessed with winning. Gramercy Park (Deborah S. Craig) is an over-achieving Asian-American girl who speaks six languages and is tired of being “all business.” Logan Schwarzengrubenierre (Sarah Saltzberg) is the youngest competitor, gripped with a desperate need to please her gay male parents who have rigidly homeschooled her to win. Troy Barrington (Robb Sapp) is a cocky kid from a long line of local spelling bee champions. And Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) is representing his school by accident after the first three placers became unavailable to attend the county bee. One of a mass of children born to former hippie parents, Coneybear stumbles upon his talent for spelling during the course of the play.

The motley crew of competitors is herded through their paces by former Putnam County champion Rona Janet (Lisa Howard), Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Jay Reiss), and ex-con comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (Dashiel Eaves). These “adult” characters need fleshing out. I did not understand where Howard’s Rona was coming from or going to, even though I loved her hilarious running commentary on the contestants. Nor did I understand what specifically precipitated Vice Principal Panch’s “incidents.” But this may have been just the iteration of the show I saw. In the next performance a scene or song might have been added or subtracted which made everything I didn’t understand crystal clear. That is the joy of watching a work in progress progress.

You can see by the character names and those brief bios that this is a little too cute, a little too predictable, and a lot too stereotypical to be great theatre. There are no huge surprises, except the eventual winner, who identity I do not dare to disclose. Also, all of these children are played by adults, which is a practice I have mixed feelings about. There are many professional and personal drawbacks to working with a cast of minors, but Barrington Stage runs a highly successful youth theatre program and certainly has access to young professionals from the New York area as well. I wonder if the energy of real adolescents in this show wouldn’t turn it from too cute to gripping.

But since this show presents us with adults playing children, it must be said that there are some endearing and hilarious turns by almost all the cast. Feldman, Fogler and Saltzberg create the most complete and believable characters. Fogler’s “Mister Barfee” is pure genius. We have all known kids that hopelessly eccentric and prayed that they survived to adulthood. Feldman is a tiny woman and could probably actually pass for a twelve year old girl in the corridors of a local junior high. Her performance as Beth is multi-faceted and touching. Saltzberg is all pale, sniffling neurosis as Logan. You realize how very completely she has taken you in when Saltzberg makes a brief appearance towards the end of the play as William Barfee’s “fake mother” Sheila. Suddenly you see a bitchy middle-aged woman where a few minutes ago you saw a vulnerable little girl.

Craig is frighteningly perfect as Gramercy (although that character name is WAY too cute and needs to be changed as soon as possible). Not only does she spell and speak/sing in many languages and accompany herself on the piano (ousting musical director Vadim Feichtner from the keyboard), she drops to a perfect split and executes several other impressive gymnastic moves during the course of the show.

Ferguson is quite delightful as Leaf Coneybear, although no boy between the ages of ten and twelve would dare to wear a homemade superhero cape to school. Even an eight year old would be considered dangerously weird. But I loved his overall performance, and portrayal of Leaf’s slow realization that he had unique skills and gifts which distinguished him from his hoard of siblings.

Sapp was the least appealing and convincing of the lot. I never could see him as anything other than a handsome man. Howard looked lovely and certainly set a safe and loving tone to the show. You did not fear for any of the contestants while she was around. Reiss needs to be given more to do, and the creators need to rethink the image of an ex-con being assigned to “comfort” kids after they are disqualified. Eaves is an appealing performer and never poses any threat, but in this age of CORI checks being required for everyone who works with children, it is doubtful that an ex-con, however qualified, would be allowed to hold such a position in a school.

This is a workshop production and so there is no set to speak of. I don’t really think this is a show that needs an obvious set anyway. Having everyone on folding chairs adds to the necessary school auditorium ambience. The lighting is professional and adequate, and the piano accompaniment by Feichtner is excellent. It will be interesting to see if Barrington Stage assembles a larger musical ensemble to support the full production this summer.

I laughed a lot at this show. And I actually became quite excited when I knew how to spell some of the hard words. A spelling bee is something that everyone over the age of six can relate to. Once the creative team works out the kinks and polishes this show up, I predict that it will have a long and successful career in regional and school theatres across the country. It is just good clean fun and a welcome breath of creative fresh air in the depths of the Berkshire winter.

The workshop production of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through February 15 at Barrington Stage Company‘s (413-528-8888) Studio Space just off Rt. 7 in Sheffield. A full production is scheduled for this summer from July 7-25. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for the whole family.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004

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