It's Spelled W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L
Imagine this: an off-Broadway play about spelling. With audience participation. Four volunteers from the audience are chosen to participate in the onstage spelling bee. All I can say is I hope the play reopens by April 1, when I'll be in New York City to denounce high-stakes testing.
Sometimes you can tell how good a show is going to be as soon as it starts. "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" was like that. The lights went down, the five-piece orchestra struck up, and an anxious-looking teenager walked on stage and sang: "At the 25th annual Putnam County Spelling Bee/My parents keep on telling me/Just being here is winning/Although/I know it isn't so." Pow! All at once Second Stage Theatre was filled with the warm, knowing laughter of a roomful of people who knew they were about to have their socks charmed off.
Let me pause for a moment so you can go right out and buy tickets, because William Finn, the writer-composer of "Falsettos" and "A New Brain," and Rachel Sheinkin, author of the funniest musical-comedy book to come along in years, have blown the bull's-eye off the target. "Putnam County" (as I'll call it for short) is that rarity of rarities, a super-smart show that is also a bona fide crowd-pleaser. Directed by James Lapine, Stephen Sondheim's longtime collaborator, it's the best new musical I've covered, "Avenue Q" included, since I started writing this column. In fact, it's the best show in town, and if it doesn't move to Broadway sooner rather than later (it runs Off Broadway through March 6), I'll cook and eat my unabridged dictionary.
You're back? Good. Now, let me tell you all about "Putnam County." It's an ingenious blend of simplicity and sophistication, a real-time stage version of a small-town spelling bee (the show runs for an intermission-free, dizzyingly brisk hour and 45 minutes) interspersed with musical numbers that tell the backstories of the finalists. The results may sound like "Spellbound," Jeffrey Blitz's delightful 2002 film documentary about the National Spelling Bee, but any and all resemblances are superficial. "Spellbound" is mainly concerned with class in America, whereas "Putnam County" tenderly portrays six different kinds of youthful misfits, ranging from William Barfee (Dan Fogler), an arrogant, adenoidal egghead, to Olive Ostrovsky (Celia Keenan-Bolger), a painfully shy girl in pink overalls whose mother is off seeking spiritual enlightenment in an ashram.
I'd need an extra page or two merely to list all the fine things in this show, so I'll be far too brief. Ms. Sheinkin's book is crammed to the eyeballs with solid punch lines, including the screwy use-it-in-a-sentence examples served up by the judge ("Sally's mother told her it was her CYSTITIS that made her special"). Mr. Finn's pointedly witty songs are so seamlessly woven into the fast-moving action that not a single stitch shows. The staging is virtuosically loony, the high-school-gym set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) a little masterpiece of subtly forced perspective. Everyone in the cast is just right, though I was touched to the heart by Ms. Keenan-Bolger and Sarah Saltzberg, who plays Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, a very tightly wrapped child with a Sylvester-sized lisp and two stage daddies who expect her to bring home the trophy or die trying.
It happens, by the way, that I know a little something about spelling bees. I made it to the state finals as a boy in Missouri, and would have gone on to the National Spelling Bee in Washington had I not clutched on "perspicacious." I remember the terrifying ecstasy I felt as I saw my competitors fall by the wayside -- and the devastation when the bell tolled for me. Almost four decades later, I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it, or what I got out of it. All this reminds me of one of the things I like best about "Putnam County": the unobtrusive grace with which it avoids making up your mind for you. Mr. Finn and Ms. Sheinkin could have made jeering fun of the competitive spirit, or papered over the sting of defeat. Instead, they show us that such youthful experiences are never all of a piece, but an indissoluble mixture of good and bad that means different things to different people. That may seem an obvious tack to take, but believe me, it isn't -- and it's part of what makes "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" a musical that is not merely funny, but wise.
Oh, one more thing: Four volunteers from the audience are chosen to participate in the onstage spelling bee. If a friendly-looking person comes up to you in the lobby and asks whether you're a good speller, say yes. Even if you aren't, you'll have the time of your life.
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