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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee begins on a high note at the Arden Theatre Company. Colin McIlvaine’s hyper-realistic high-school gymnasium set greets the audience as they enter the F. Otto Haas Stage, a perfect arena for the pre-pubescent contestants vying to claim top prize at the titular competition. In my nearly 10 years of reviewing professional theater in Philadelphia, this is the best use I’ve seen of this performance space, one that offers clear sightlines throughout the auditorium’s three-quarter thrust configuration and doesn’t overload the playing area with unnecessary, perspective-blocking props.
Unfortunately, you can’t hum floorboards, and the witty placards declaring the space as an “anti-bullying zone” don’t compensate for the unrelentingly juvenile humor baked into William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s 2005 musical. How would I spell Spelling Bee? F-L-O-P.
Kids on the precipice
I will freely admit this show, which Finn and Sheinkin conceived with Rebecca Feldman, engages in a surfeit of theater tropes that I find insufferable. Adults playing children? Check. Audience participation? Gobs of it. (Spectators are recruited to join the actors onstage as faux competitors during the musical’s first act.) Jokes of the scatological variety? There are plenty.
And yet, there is a promise of something deeper that neither the material nor this production, directed by Amina Robinson and choreographed by Robin Levine, feels comfortable fully delivering. Amid the cheap laughs about acne and erections, Spelling Bee captures a group of children on the precipice of a formidable life change, stepping into the moment where they begin to realize the world is a complicated and sometimes disappointing place. Problems cannot be solved by simply using a word in a sentence.
The lowest common denominator
Each character has a cross to bear. Marcy Park (Hannah Catanoso) feels stifled by the need to achieve. Olive Ostrovsky (Jessica Money) is neglected by her absentee parents, while Leaf Coneybear (Garrick Vaughan) is underestimated by his mean-spirited siblings. William Barfée (Steve Pacek) masks social anxiety with driven perfectionism. Chip Tolentino (Ronnie Keller) grapples with feelings of betrayal toward his changing body.
These are real issues that kids face every day, and they’re not always a laughing matter. Finn’s music occasionally engages the true emotion beneath the facile surface. In the musical’s best number, the wrenching “I Love You Song,” Olive imagines what life might look like if her parents showed her the care she needs. The endearing Money, alongside the strong-voiced Patricia Noonan and Henry Gainza, bring genuine poignancy.
Yet more often than not, the humor targets the lowest common denominator, and the actors seem more invested in presenting exaggerated portraits of childhood than mining the discoveries that happen at that impressionable age. Robinson’s production pitches the comedy above all else and loses any sense of nuance or depth. The characters become caricatures.
Raising eyebrows now
Other aspects of the show have not aged well. It was still a novelty 20 years ago to present one of the children, Logainne Schwartzandgrubeniere (Helen St. Cyr), with gay parents, but the mincing portrayal of her conniving stage fathers comes across now as blatantly homophobic. The presence of Mitch Mahoney (Gainza), a gruff “grief counselor” performing community service, raises an eyebrow.
Noonan brings a wry sensibility to her primary role as Rona Lisa Peretti, a former bee champion who now serves as an excitable chaperone, and Dave Johnson takes deadpan to the max as moderator Douglas Panch. Their winning performances, however, caused me to reflect again on why the main adult characters are given more opportunities for depth than the central children.
If you do end up seeing Spelling Bee at the Arden, here’s my advice: come early and admire the set. And maybe bring earplugs for the rest.
What, When, Where
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman; directed by Amina Robinson. Through June 25, 2023, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
The Arden is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There will be audio-described and open-captioned performances on Friday, June 9, at 8pm, and Saturday, June 10, at 2pm.
Masks are not required.
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