Sunday, May 11, 2008


How do you spell fun? SPELLING BEE at Palace Theatre

‘THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAN COUNTY SPELLING BEE,’ which for the rest of this column will be referred to as THE BEE, is presently on-stage at the Palace Theatre. It is one of those cute, fun pieces of theatre. Though there is a little attempt to make the whole thing present a message about kindness and understanding, it is, at least the first two-thirds of it, a delightful romp where we laugh both with and at the contestants.

THE BEE is a one-act musical which centers on six quirky teens competing for the title of “Spelling Champion.” They are overseen by grown-ups who have barely managed to escape childhood themselves. In the process we all supposedly learn that “winning isn’t everything and that losing doesn’t necessarily make you a loser.” Yeah, sure!

The script is based upon ‘C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,’ an original play created by Rebecca Feldman. It was originally an improv piece and it still retains some of that same energy and creativity, especially when members of the audience are placed on stage as spellers and they don’t necessarily follow the cues they’ve been given. On opening night, a tween named Jack Michaels threw a monkey wrench into the proceedings when he correctly spelled a very difficult word, causing the announcer to madly ad lib and find a word to get rid of the kid so the “scripted” show could continue.

After a successful off-Broadway run, THE BEE opened on-Broadway to good reviews and box-office success. It was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two, including Best Book.

The touring production is true to the show I saw in New York. In fact,
several of the cast are transfers from the recently closed Broadway production.

Each role in the production is well-performed. From the audience reactions the favorites included Cleveland native Eric Roediger, a former local theatre youth director, who plays the over-weight, nut-allergic, allergy prone William Barfee who spells words by use of a unique foot-sketching method. His song, “Magic Feet” was delightful.

Leaf Coneybear, who makes his own clothes, wears a helmet as he keeps falling down and bumping into things, and has been convinced by his family that he is not exactly a whiz kid, enchants the audience with “I’m Not That Smart.” Andrew Keenan-Bolger’s portrayal is so endearing that when he finally spelled out, his exit was met with a series of moans from the audience.

Dana Steingold as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (she has two dads and uses both of their last names connected by an “and), who is the President of her elementary school’s Gay, Lesbian Transgender and Questioning Organization, is a total delight.

As is the case with shows that I perceive as being kid-friendly, I took my 12 year-old grandson, Alex with me.. He gave the show an 8 out of 10. He stated, “I thought lots of it was funny, but some it was not exactly for youngsters.” (He was slouched down in his seat and giggled through the “My Unfortunate Erection,” which was well sung by Justin Keyes; but, I’m not sure sitting next to grandpa during that number was totally relaxing, even if he has had “the sex talk with Daddy.”) He thought the first part of the show was “really funny,” but thought the last half “dragged a little.” Being a talented pianist, he did question some of the vocal blendings. His favorite character was Barfee (the foot speller). His final comment? “I’d like to have gone up on stage and been a contestant, like that kid.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE” is a fun show. Since it is rather intimate, I’m not sure how well it played to the back of the front floor or in the balcony. I’d not recommend it for anyone less than in their mid-teens.