Much like the recent Jason Bateman movie Bad Words, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee concerns itself with the competitors in the titular spell-off. Unlike its more cinematic counterpart, the stage musical develops it’s characters in a believable fashion, giving the event stakes that matter for everyone involved. Bad Words was not a bad movie, but the screenwriter would have done well to take a few more cues from Spelling Bee.
I have never seen a performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but the number that the cast performed on the 2005 Tony Awards was highly entertaining and intriguing. In the intervening years I have listened to the soundtrack, with music and lyrics by William Finn, but only recently have I had reason to peruse Rachel Sheinkin’s book for the musical. It is deeply witty – even in the stage directions – but more than that, it is moving.
The script follows six competitors in the Bee. Olive Ostrovsky (originated by Celia Keenan-Bolger) is a newer contestant, looking for new friends in the wake of her parents’ neglect. William Barfée (Dan Fogler), both bullied and a bully, seeks to redeem himself after an embarrassing incident at the 24th annual bee. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Saltzberg) is the Bee’s youngest entrant, hoping to live up to the standards set by her fathers. Marcy Park (Deborah S. Craig) is perhaps the smartest student on the stage, but she hides a secret desire or two. Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) got to the Bee out of a series of unlikely events, and is just happy to be around other people. And Chip Tolentino (Jose Llana), the reigning champion, just wants to repeat and get another shot at nationals. Under the supervision of Rona Lisa Peretti (Lisa Howard), Douglas Panch (Jay Reiss), and Mitch Mahoney (Derrick Baskin) these spellers take a shot at greatness, while possibly working through and emotional problem or two.
The script leaves room for a good deal of improvisation, and I will refrain from spoiling the outcome of the Bee, but one constant is the journey that each character goes through. Not everyone gets a happy ending – it is a competition after all – but each child (and even the adults) learns something. The show is not as preachy as that “learns something,” might imply; in fact each role comes with an amount of maturity and respect that most adult characters do not receive in musical theater. Putting up a musical where children are played by adults can be a tricky proposition. It would be easy to fall into caricature – and that is certainly a concern in the execution of Spelling Bee, as well – but Finn and Sheinkin put enough pathos into their characters to allow for nuanced performance if the actors are up to the task.
So you should seek out the script and soundtrack for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, you will enjoy them. ALTERNATIVELY, on a totally unrelated note, Fraggled Productions and The Cupcake Theater in Los Angeles will be bringing you the show every Friday and Saturday in May. This writer may or may not be intimately involved involved in the production (hint: he is). That certainly sounds like a good time for the whole family to me. But maybe I’m biased.