I should hate The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Bristol Riverside Theatre’s (BRT) season opener. Although I moonlight as an opera and classical music critic, I generally prefer plays to musicals.
Perhaps because I am also a music critic, I tend to find William Finn’s scores pedestrian and forgettable. (Seriously, Bill, you can write a song with more than three chords!) And the only thing that pushes my buttons more than actual children’s theater is a show where adults cute themselves up and play kids.
Yet I can’t help but be charmed by this largely plotless character study of six precocious preteens angling for passage to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Finn and Rachel Sheinkin, his Tony Award–winning librettist, avoid the common clichés of adolescent comedy and present a motley crew of young people struggling to form their individual identities. Amy Kaissar’s fine production captures that heady and awkward stage of life with almost painful accuracy.
The spellers include Chip Tolentino (Will Clayton), cocky champion of last year’s bee; William Barfée (Joshua Morgan), a wiry eccentric descended from the Borscht Belt; textbook overachiever Marcy Park (Leigha Kato); Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Brooke Wetterhahn), a proto-free-range child raised by gay dads; and Leaf Coneybear (T.J. Wagner), a homeschooler in handmade clothes (perfectly realized by Linda B. Stockton) and a hastily tied superhero cape. Doleful and neglected Olive Ostrovsky (Phebe Taylor) completes the septet, watched over by former spelling star Rona Lisa Perretti (warm-voiced Kathryn McCreary) and apoplectic vice principal Douglas Panch (criminally funny Robert Smythe).
The kids are alright
The musical unfurls through a series of character songs that capture each child’s essence while communicating snippets of backstory. Through “I’m Not That Smart,” we learn that Leaf’s crunchy-hippie family constantly underestimates his intellect. “I Speak Six Languages” shows Marcy chafing under the pressure of mounting expectations. (Kato, a winning local actress, deserves praise for superbly singing while playing piano, performing karate, and dunking a basketball).
Both of Olive’s numbers — the deceptively quirky “My Friend the Dictionary” and heartrending “I Love You Song” — communicate the lifetime of loneliness and disappointment she’s had to face before high school. Taylor’s plaintive mezzo-soprano throbs through some of Finn’s most affecting lyrics, as when Olive tells her mother her dad “takes out on me/what he wants to take out on you.”
BRT’s production succeeds largely because the ensemble fully commits to portraying youth in all its marvelously awkward, hormone-swirling glory. They stomp around Jason Simms’s highly realistic gymnasium set, performing Stephen Casey’s frenetic choreography with all the energy of 12-year-olds on sugar highs. These are wink-free performances; the talented adult actors lose themselves within the frenzy of childhood, where big, open emotions reign supreme.
Certain segments of the musical, which premiered in 2005, haven’t aged well. There’s something unsettling about watching a mostly white audience guffaw at the presence of Mitch Mahoney (played here by Andrew Coleman), a heavily tattooed, black ex-convict performing community service as the bee’s “comfort counsellor.” Finn and Sheinkin should get together and remove some of the character elements that feel like racist dog whistles. And while they’re at it, they can also tamp down the more stereotypical characteristics assigned to Logainne’s fathers, alternately presented as preening queen and classic queer villain.
If the creators were willing to take those steps, Spelling Bee would be perfect. P-E-R-F-E-C-T. Perfect. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.
What, When, Where
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Conceived by Rebecca Feldman, music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, additional material by Jay Reiss, Amy Kaissar directed. Through October 15, 2017, at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. (215) 785-0100 or brtstage.org.