SPELLING BEE at Red Branch Spells W-I-N-N-E-R
Having neither observed nor participated in a spelling bee since elementary school (in third grade I placed second out of my whole class, thank you very much), I cannot say how closely the misfits and prodigies who people The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee resemble actual participants in the pre-teen spelling circuit. What I can say is that William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s 2005 musical is one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen, and the production currently playing at the Red Branch Theatre Company’s home in Columbia nails every laugh.
If Spelling Bee is any guide, the quaint grade-school tradition has in recent years become hypercompetitive. The show’s characters include Marcy Park, who boasts of her achievements in a song titled “I Speak Six Languages” and prays to Jesus to give her more challenging words; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenneire, who is president of her elementary school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (much to the pleasure of her two overbearing dads, Dan Schwartz and Carl Grubenneire); and last year’s winner, Chip Tolentino, a Boy Scout who seems in danger of sinking under the weight of his many merit badges.
They are joined onstage by Leaf Coneybear, who advanced to the Putnam County Bee only because the first- and second-place winners in his district had to attend a Bat Mitzvah (“I’m Not That Smart,” he sings cheerfully); William Barfee (“Bar-Fay,” he protests repeatedly—one of the few jokes that grows stale), who suffers from debilitating peanut allergies and a rare mucous membrane disorder; and Olive Ostrovsky, who discovers anagrams in people’s names (“Did you know if you switch the first two vowels in ‘Olive’ you get ‘I love’?”) and dances gracefully with “My Friend, the Dictionary” to fill the void left by her absent parents.
Indeed, parents make only fleeting appearances throughout Spelling Bee. Instead, the adult world is represented by the bee’s reverent moderator, Rona Lisa Perretti (a former spelling champion herself), and its judge, Douglas Panch, an embittered assistant principal. An ex-convict named Mitch fulfills his community service obligations as the event’s Comfort Counselor; he dispenses juice boxes and hugs to disqualified contestants and sings that “life is random and unfair / life is pandemonium.”
Amazingly, for all the jokes at the characters’ expenses (and everyone is fair game, including the audience), the tone is never mean-spirited. Credit for this must go to Sheinkin’s wonderful book—a model of what might be termed affectionate satire—but equally to the Red Branch performers, who demand we view their characters as three-dimensional people rather than mere bundles of outrageous quirks. Director Jenny Gale has cast each role perfectly—truly, the only thing for me to say is that Amy Baughman (Olive), Sara Cobb (Ms. Perretti), Priscilla Cuellar (Logainne), Dean Davis (William), David Frankenberger (Chip), Drew Gaver (Leaf), Jay Michael Gilman (Mr. Panch), David Gregory (Mitch), and Erica Murphy (Marcy) together form as good an ensemble as you will see all year.
In addition to the official cast, each performance of Spelling Bee features several audience members, who are invited onstage to “play” additional contestants. So seamlessly are the volunteers integrated into the show—they receive words to spell and participate in several musical numbers, and are even subjected to personalized hazing (always good natured) from Ms. Perretti and Mr. Panch—I almost convinced myself they were plants.