One of the rituals of growing up – at least back when a certain cranky critic was young – was participating in the annual spelling bees held at most schools throughout America. While most of us got the first word or two correct – such as “cow” and “jihad,” for example – only a handful of kids moved on from the local competitions to – ultimately – the nationals. And since the winners were culled mostly from the ranks of the social underdogs – the brainiacs, the geeky and the ignored – whatever success the participants achieved was quickly forgotten by the time the next sporting event or pep rally rolled around.
So when a musical called “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” first hit the stage in 2004, the general reaction was, “Huh? How boring!”
Until people saw it, that is. And it won two coveted Tony Awards.
And now local audiences can find out for themselves just how much fun it is, thanks to the warm and laugh-filled national touring production that’s now at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre.
Set in a typical school gym, six youngsters come together for the regional spelling bee, the winner of which will go the national championship. Moderating for the ninth time is former champ – and now the area’s top realtor – Rona Lisa Peretti (played by Sally Wilfert) and recently-returned vice-principal Douglas Panch (James Kall).
Battling to be named champ are a cross section of Putnam County’s finest. There’s the girl with two dads, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Dana Steingold), who serves as leader of her school’s Gay/Straight Alliance; Leaf Coneybear (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), the flighty son of former hippies who’s in the contest because his school’s winner and first runner-up have other engagements that day; William Barfee (Eric Roediger) – pronounced Bar-FAY, which no one gets right – a pudgy, angry kid who spells out his words via dance-like motions; Marcy Park, (Katie Boren), the high-achieving and arrogant speaker of six languages; Boy Scout Chip Tolentino (Justin Keyes), the lad with the unfortunate erection (there’s a whole song about it); and the sweet Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Ray) whose only friend is her dictionary. (There are also four competitors chosen from the audience, and one, Ryan Moore, stunned the actors on opening night by correctly spelling a word purposely designed to make him fail.)
What’s charming about “Spelling Bee” isn’t the contest itself – although it IS often hilarious. (The word definitions are a hoot!) Rather, it’s the unfolding lives of the quirky characters that grab your attention and never let go. (The 100-minute show flies by without an intermission.)
But more importantly, there’s an important lesson to be learned here, and pretty much everyone walks away from the spelling bee a winner that day – even the audience!
Although the entire cast sings, dances and acts quite well, the music and lyrics by William Finn are mostly forgettable. But that’s okay, because the tunes do what they’re supposed to do: They advance the plot and help define the characters.
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tue.-Sun., through Oct. 21. Tickets: $25-$70. For information: 313-872-1000 or http://www.broadwayindetroit.com