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The Spelling Bee

With the hysterical laughing of Scena Theatre’s production of No Exit still echoing in her ears, the Dresser, who tries not to be a snob about musicals, ventured out to see the road show of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Washington, DC’s National Theatre on October 23, 2007. Bee, originally conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, is a charming and comical show about six egg-headed kids wearing odd numbers (1, 7, 11, 13, 17, 21) and competing to win a long-standing spelling bee.


What makes this musical different from most Broadway musicals is the element of improvisation. A quick aside here—the origin of this show was a non-musical play called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E by the New York City comedic improv group The Farm. The late playwright Wendy Wasserstein saw the work because her nanny was in it and Wasserstein recommended to William Finn that he consider musicalizing the work. Although the Dresser is not entirely convinced that there is enough improv in the resulting Bee, the technique is visible with employment of several audience members selected just before the doors open on each performance. As show time arrives, the Bee’s mistress of ceremony Rona Lisa Peretti (played by Broadway and Off-Broadway veteran Sally Wilfert) strolls through the audience carrying an oversized trophy and talking to audience members. For example, Peretti asked the Dresser if she was really going to take notes. After the cast of contestants is introduced, Peretti invites the volunteer contestants to join the cast members. What distinguishes the non-actors from the actors is this: the actors are adults dressed as children and the non-actors are adults dressed in what they wore to the theater. And yes, the contestants—actor and non—are all suppose to be children.

When Peretti introduces the non-actors, she makes funny comments about what they are wearing and how that reflects on their personalities. Before the show begins, the non-actors are told when they are called to the mic to spell a word, they may ask for a definition of their word and for the word to be used in a sentence. That’s it. No other instructions.

Initially the word meister (he is also the milquetoast sexual predator), Vice Principal Douglas Panch (played by James Kall), gives the non-actors ridiculously easy words like cow. However, one plucky non-actor gets one of those words no one has ever heard of and much to the amazed hilarity of Mr. Panch, who has begun to make up odd sentences for odd words, the non-actor spells the word correctly. After the show, the Dresser approached this man who caused the sour Mr. Panch to laugh and asked him about his role in the show. The man works as a systems administrator in real life and he said he just guessed how to spell the word, foiling the attempt to eliminate him at that moment. The audience loved him and gave him lots of applause.


The Dresser doesn’t want to be a spoiler but the word in question is catterjoons or catterjunes, which if Googled reveals: (1) it is not a real word and (2) it is always given to the last audience contestant left standing on the Bee’s stage. You, dear reader, can take it from there. What the Dresser is revealing makes the situation no less funny. James Kall delivers the surprised reaction that any audience can believe. Moreover, what the creators of the Bee have effected is a great study in what makes an audience engage with the theatrical performance.


What’s delightful about the cast playing the kids is how well distinguished each kid is from the other and what technique each uses to impart the letters of the word assigned. For example, kid number 13 known as William Barfee (pronounced bar-fay—he has a running battle with Mr. Panch about saying his name correctly) uses his “magic foot” to spell out each word he is assigned. SpellingBeeTour176sm.jpg

Photo by Joan Marcus

The magic foot provides inspiration for one of the best song and dance numbers in the show. Barfee (played outstandingly by theater newcomer Eric Roediger) is a nerdy fat boy in glasses who by the end of the show has won the heart of contestant 11 Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Ray) whose mother is in India seeking spiritual guidance while her father is a no-show. The Dresser adores this character whose best friend is her dictionary and, of course, Olive, who whispers into her hand first in her spelling moments, should be the winner but defers to Barfee.

Then there is kid number 17 named Leaf Coneybear (played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger) who each time he gets a word suddenly wakes up his inner genius. Keenan-Bolger is fascinating to watch as his eyes and mouth open wide when he is spelling. Otherwise, he is the family screw-up and possibly the idiot savant in the game of spelling bees. Talking about screw-ups, last year’s Bee winner Chip Tolentino (number 21) falls in love with Leaf’s sister whereupon Chip’s hormones kick in for one of those embarrassing male events. Distracted, Chip (played by Justin Keyes) misspells and tries to correct himself. He is ordered out of the contest, but not without help from the Bee’s bouncer Mitch Mahoney (Kevin Smith Kirkwood) who is a street tough guy wearing dreadlocks and whose job it is to “comfort” the losers with tiny juice boxes.

Kid number 1 Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Dana Steingold) is the lisper being raised by male partners. One of her dads pours cola on the floor in an effort to out the magic foot of Barfee and give his daughter a better shot at winning. Kid number 7 Marcy Park (Katie Boren) is the perfect Asian American girl who is sick of always being so smart and right. She sees Jesus (he appears in a audience box close to the stage) and then misspells on purpose. Along with Olive, these two characters point out that winning isn’t everything one needs in life. By the end of the show, the Dresser loved all these kids and thought they would be satisfying students to teach.


So how do the creators of this show about a spelling bee keep audience attention? Certainly the music and dance do not leave indelible marks, although both added charm to the more interesting spoken repartee. And, by the way, why weren’t the songs listed in the Playbill as most musicals do? Besides the pauses for the stories of the kids in the cast, the gimmick of bringing four audience members on stage to compete, the mentions of current day hot issues (e.g. the current presidential administration, runaway moms, gay parenting, sexual predators in the schools), the anchoring of the kids in the cast to local schools, there are the theatrics of messing with time. In one scene late in the show, director James Lapine both speeds up the talking and movement and then reverses into slow mo. However the bigger move is keeping everyone in their seats for the entire one-hour-and-forty-five minute show and providing a theatrical intermission where the ousted student Chip appears and throws candy and chips into the audience. The Dresser and most audience members would probably prefer getting up without the fear of getting caught by the hall monitor. While Jean-Paul Sartre was worried about his audience meeting a war time curfew (so he kept No Exit to one act and no intermission), the Dresser suspects the creators of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee were worried about their audience skipping out.

Poet Christopher Bursk has written on the subject of adolescent kids and the words they use. Here is an excerpt from one of his poems.


Words spit out, chosen
for their ugliness, sounding like bad-tasting vegetables,
roots you’d feed to pigs,
food only the hungry would eat.
Geeks, my oldest boy whispers
meaning the kids from the district’s other high school,
rah-rahs, bandos,
wanting the to overhear,
to make out the words his lips form.
Nerd, his younger brother says,
as we pass a boy on a bike;
he means any kid who wears plaid, has glasses, rides alone,
his mouth open
as if swallowing, as if the wind’s rushing in,
as if there were air all inside him.
My children laugh when I tell them
how in fifth grade I was voted best girl.
My sons howl in delight, knowing
they’re in no danger of being elected that.

by Christopher Bursk
from The Way Water Rubs Stone

Copyright © 2007 Christopher Bursk


Comments (1)

Delightful as the show purports to be.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 25, 2007 4:00 PM.

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