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A CurtainUp Review
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Musical Numbers
Spelling Bee Trivia
Broadway Review
Second Stage Review
Original Barrington Stage Review
Broadway Review
The Spellers Make it to the Final Lap at Circle in the Square
by Elyse Sommer

Celia Keenan-Bolger &  Dan Fogler,
Celia Keenan-Bolger & Dan Fogler, (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Can an endearing little show with adult actors playing a group of quirky junior high school spelling bee contestants make the leap to a big Broadway house? The answer is yes, yes, yes! The Circle in the Square's long runway stage has been reconfigured so that part of the playing area has become an additional seating section, thus transforming the all-around seating into a three-sided thrust with just about perfect sight lines wherever you sit. Banners all around the theater's walls contribute towards the atmosphere of being in a big gym, as do the gym-like ceiling struts overhanging the stage and serving as a proscenium.

In keeping with its move to a Tony-eligible neighborhood, the show now does have a touch more Broadway glitter, but retains its essential little engine that could charm. The cast still rushes up and down the aisles (the Circle has one more aisle than the Second Stage and the production makes full use of it). Jose Lana's Chip Tolentino still empties out his portable candy carrier as he sings about the "embarassing erection." The four audience volunteers who join the cast members at each performance still add a risky bit of fun as to whether one might be a good enough speller to stay on stage longer than anticipated. At the press performance I attended an adorable little blonde boy who, encouraged by his easy first word (cow) clearly would have enjoyed hugging that mike a bit longer -- but out he went as planned, and so did the three other guests.

If this endearingly goofy enterprise has one flaw it's that it hasn't managed to slim down to 90 or 95 minutes, even as Broadway economics have upped the price of admission. But, to borrow a leaf from a song by that chronic blusher Leaf Coneybear:
If you like to laugh
If you like to spell
You'll like this competition very well
And feel your heart begin to swell.
As you watch the spellers once again excel You'll root for it to hang around for a good long spell.

Details about the show, a song list and some spelling bee trivia follow this update.

The production notes are unchanged except for the new venue's price and performance details which follow:
Circle In the Square, 50th Street, 212-239-6200
From 4/15/05; opening 5/05/05
Tues through Sat @ 8:00PM, Sat & Sun @ 2:00PM, & Sun @ 7:00PM
Tickets: $95.00
Musical Numbers
Spelling Bee Trivia
Barrington Stage Review

Second Stage Review
The Spellers of the 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee Are More Delightfully Daffy Than Ever
by Elyse Sommer
The  Spelling Bee Cast
The Spellers. Front row (l-r): Celia Keenan-Bolger, Dan Fogler, Sarah Saltzberg. Back row (l-r): Jose Llana, Deborah S. Craig, Jesse Tyler Ferguson. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Musical Numbers
Spelling Bee Trivia
Barrington Stage Review

This catchy and endearing little show was the Berkshire season's big crowd pleaser. Young and old alike loved the story, the music. . .everything. Sniffing another Avenue Q the powers that be set out to move the show to New York.

Second Stage is an ideal venue for the transfer. The Barrington Stage production didn't have to create a gym setting since their smaller theater where this was mounted is located in the gym of a high school that's transformed into a theater each summer. Now James Lapine, a long-time William Finn collaborator who's taken the helm for the transfer, and set designer Beowulf Borritt have done a splendid job of transforming this playing area into an authentic gym. They've made some sophisticated additions (notably, an upstage door that slides open to reveal a variety of evocative backdrops) but these in no way detract from the musical's intimacy.

This lovable little show's touching depiction of youthful angst and yearnings and William Finn's delightful songs and sparkling lyrics (they sounded even richer on my second visit) are a refreshing change from the recent crop of cynically manufactured musicals. Thus, timing, as much as a high caliber book, music and performances coupled with Mr. Lapine's subtle directorial refinements, may send these bees buzzing to the next level -- from Second Stage to a Broadway house.

The original cast is back on board, their characterizations deepened so that the very authentic feelings of hope and insecurity are not overshadowed by their comic eccentricities. Dan Fogler has the showiest role as the the magic-footed William Barfee. But all six contestants are terrific and make the most of their special songs ("I'm Not That Smart" by Jesse Tyler Ferguson's adorably ditzy Coney Bear was probably my own favorite).

The adult members of the cast are as funny as the kids. The sample sentences supplied by quirky moderator Douglas Punch (Jay Reiss) to the nervous spellers provide some of the most uproarious moments (After defining "cystitis" as an inflammation of the urinary bladder, Mr. Punch calmly illustrated it with "Sally's mother told her that it was her cystitis that made her special." A Jewish ritual box known asr " phylacteries" prompted "Billy, put down that phylactery, we're Episcopalians"). I'll eat my Unabridged Webster's if someone doesn't come up with a little volume of tough spelling words accompanied by similarly bizarre usage examples, perhaps with cartoon drawings of the 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee cast.

Derrick Raskin, the parolee-grief counsellor Mitch Mahoney who hugs the misspellers before they're sung off stage with a catchy "goodbye, goodbye," teams up with Bee hostess Lisa Howard as Olive's (Celia Keenan-Bolger) parents in the touching " I Love You Song." Jose Llana, the only new cast member, handles Chip Tolentino's "embarassing erection" with panache. Chip was originally named Trip Barrington, a sly nod to the Berkshire venue. There are several other name changes but no matter. Marcy Park may be a bit less exotic than Gramercy Park, but Deborah Craig still brings down the house when in the middle of "I Speak Six Languages", she bounces off stage and temporarily ousts Vadim Feichtner from the piano.

The audience participation element (four volunteer spellers selected from early arrivals) is still part of the proceedings -- unlike Dame Edna who pulls unprepared audience members out of their seats, people here are given a chance to volunteer before the show begins and are briefed at a little pre-show meeting about what to do when the ensemble dances. Judging from the two men and two women who participated on the matinee I attended, it's unlikely that any of these good-natured participants will escape the " goodbye, goodbye" chorus though, this sort of audience participation always entails unanticipated risks. In this case a good speller with a competitive streak could upset the otherwise well rehearsed proceedings.

As in Avenue Q, the musical with the footsteps the show obviously wants to follow, the Second Stage program doesn't include a song list. Except for a couple of deletions and some reorganization, the song list at the end of my Barrington Stage review is correct.

The positive early reviews and word of mouth have already extended the current run by several weeks. Until the rumors about a Broadway transfer turn into fact (this show needs the right house to retain it's charm), I've appended the current production notes with some items for trivia lovers which will be updated as long as the show runs. Feel free to send me an e-mail .:

Composer and Lyricist: William Finn
Playwright: Rachel Sheinkin Conceiver and Co-Director Rebecca Feldman
Co-Director Michael Unger
Musical Direction & Dance Arrangements: Vadim Feichtner
Associate Musical Director: Carmel Dean
Music Coordinator: Michael Keller
Cast (with current character names): Derrick Baskin (Mitch Mahoney and various other roles), Deborah S. Craig (Marcy Park) , Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Leaf Coneybear and a pushy dad), Dan Fogler( William Barfee), Lisa Howard* (Guidance Counselor Rona Lisa Peretti), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Olive Ostrovsky), Jay Reiss (Vice Principal Douglas Panch), Sarah Saltzberg (Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre) and Jose Lana (Chip Tolentino). Musicians: Vadim Feichtner (conductor/piano); Carmel Dean (Associate conductor, synthesizer); Rick Heckman (reed); Amy Ralske (cello); Glenn Rhim (drums/percussion). The production which is now scheduled to play at Second Stage, 307 West 43rd Street (212/ 246-4422 from 1/11/05 to 3/06/05--extended to 3/20; with an official opening, 2/07/05.
Tickets: $75

Spelling Bee Trivia
A Google search on the subject of spelling bees kicks up 122,000 pages for your browsing pleasures.

The word bee, as used in spelling bee, is a fairly old and common word used for community gatherings at which friends and neighbors join in an activity like quilting or barn raising. The first spelling bee recorded in print dates back to 1875.

While spelling bees are primarily educational projects involving kids, there are some adult spelling bees. These are generally corporate or senior citizen spelling bees organized to raise money for charity via the entry fees which, depending on the sponsor, can range between $100 and $1,000.

Some Spelling Bees have been faced with elimination by those who consider them elitist and counter to No Child Left Behind (oh, dear-- will sports competitions come under scrutiny next?). Other protesters have complained about the choice of words -- for example, in 2001 an anti-smoking group protested a finalist's being asked to spell cheroot. Other complaints have been about the words being too hard. (They sure aren't easy, if this partial list of winning words at past national contests is any indication: prospicience, demarche, logorrhea, euonym, xanthosis, antediluvian).

If you think the tension doesn't get to some of the "bees", consider the case of 2004 National Spelling Bee contestant Akshay Buddiga,aged 13. The Colorado Springs teenager apparently got light-headed from tension and collapsed right on stage -- but not before correctly spelling a-l-o-p-e-c-o-i-d.

How do kids prepare for these brain teasing trials? The 2004 national winner, David Tidmarsh, said that he studied the entire Webster's Third New International Dictionary -- including its addenda section. Wow! Imagine if he showed up as a volunteer contestant!

In the United States, spelling bees are held annually from local levels up to the level of the National Spelling Bee which is sponsored by English language newspapers and awards a scholarship to the winner. Contestants came from the Bahamas and Jamaica as well as all over the United States.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is the first musical ever about a group of spelling piece contestants, but the nonmusical documentary Spellbound (mentioned in the Barrington Stage review) was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002. Spelling competitions have also inspired a novel, Bee Season, by Myla Goldberg. The first time author's portrait of an American family torn asunder when eleven-year-old Eliza defies everyone's expectations by blossoming into a championship speller has been popular with reading groups, especially since its paperback publication in 2001. Top of List

Barrington Stage Review
Our sin is we expect to win --- so sing the contestants of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee who "study lists from A to Z" because they love words and spelling . . .and, of course, winning.
His music and lyrics have given us A New Brain, a musical about brain surgery with hospital beds, MRI machines and walkers as props. His Falsetto trilogy is about a man named Marvin and his relationship with his young son and the wife he leaves for a male lover who succumbs to AIDS. Elegies: A Song Cycle featured a parade of songs about the deaths of various people he has known, including some of his closest friends and family members. Even though William Finn's fans have learned to come to one of his musicals with tissues, his work is never morbid. In fact, it's often funny and ultimately buoys the spirit.

If you bring tissues to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, you'll be using them strictly to wipe away tears of laughter as you root for the spellers in Rachel Sheinkin's spoof of the spelling bee contests held in school districts all over the country. While Finn fans (and there are many, including this writer) will recognize the composer's trademark melodic complexity and witty lyrics in the songs he's written for the Putnam County spellers, this is a departure in style. It's not sung through and, though Spelling Bee puts a fair amount of youthful vulnerability on stage (whoever said being twelve is all angst-free fun?) this is essentially a light-hearted, feel-good show that prompts such easy to spell adjectives as charming, sweet, endearing and quirky.

The spelling bee concept as a teeny bopper's approach to the American Dream has already found its way to the screen via a 2002 documentary under the title of Spellbound (a.k.a. as Spell This), which chronicled ten eight-graders' quest to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee. But it took director Rachel Feldman's vision to turn Rachel Sheinkin's book about nine spellers into a musical.

As the best spellers at a local spelling bee like the one in Sheffield's neighboring Putnam County can move on to bigger and more high profile competitions, this show has grown from a sketch called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E (a rarely used Latin based noun for twilight, used mainly to trap spelling bee contestants) into a full-fledged musical with a parade of catchy tunes by the Tony award winning Finn. It had a month-long winter workshop at Barrington Stage which is now hosting its official world premiere at the Second Stage which has become one of those hot little venues bringing to mind Arthur Miller's famous phrase "attention must be paid."

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is not only blessed with Mr. Finn's bouncy melodies and clever character building lyrics, but an ensemble that fully inhabits those characters. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who was one of the reasons to see the Broadway revival of On the Town and Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish delights as the goofy Leaf Coneybear whose accidental entry into the finals has him singing "I'm Not That Smart" which is aptly reprised when he comes up with the correct spelling. By contrast there are the two super-smart contestant, William Barfee (played to super-nerdy perfection by Dan Fogler and the programmed for success Asian-American contestant, Gramercy Park (Deborah S. Craig). Fogler hilariously tests out his answers with a soft shoe routine that gets its own song, "Magic Foot." Craig is equally hilarious. In "I Speak Six Languages" she sings, dances and ends taking over from Vadim Feichtner at the piano. A well-deserved showstopper!

I could go on singling out the performers, but you get the idea. While I'm not generally enamored of adults playing children, all these twenty-somethings are enjoyably full of over the top twelve-year old ticks. The only two true blue adults, Jay Reiss as Vice-Principal Douglas Panch and Lisa Howard as Guidance Counselor Rona Janett, keep the proceedings moving along. Ms. Janett renders a particularly winning romantic ballad, "I Don't Remember Anything."

While the show has a casual let's put on a show feel, make no mistake about it -- this is a real musical. It's chamber sized, with an "orchestra" consisting of a piano and minimal choreography, but all the songs are well integrated to allow the students taking their turn at the microphone to weave bits and pieces of back story into the contest set-up.

The addition of several audience members to be part of the spelling bee adds a reality show touch that increases the fun but is ultimately rather gimmicky and unnecessary. These audience participants aren't pulled out of their chairs, but are drawn from those picking up their tickets at the door. One woman who joined the kids on stage was an amazingly good speller but be forewarned: Sooner or later you'll be sung out of the show as the idea is to boil things down to the two finalists -- whose identity I won't reveal here.

Beowulf Borritt's simple school gym setting, complete with basketball hoop, is given an extra aura of authenticity by this staging in a theater carved from an actual school gym. Jen Caprio's outfits for the ensemble underscore their quirks.

Is this world premiere destined for a bigger things after this limited run in Sheffield? Clearly, with the success of Avenue Q, the Muppet style musical that moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway and nabbed a fistful of awards (Our Review), the folks at Barrington Stage think that this musical might do for Generation PT (pre-teen) and their parents what that little show did for Generation X and their elders. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is indeed something of a cross between Avenue Q and The Fantasticks which was an Off-Off-Broadway staple for nearly half a century (Our Review). So, it could happen, but -- and this is a major but in today's tough to crack New York market -- even with its one risque song, "My Unfortunate Erection, " this show's most sure-fire future probably lies with other regional companies whose artistic directors could do a lot worse than to model themselves on this splendidly staged premiere.

Elegies (DC)
Falsettos(Barrington Stage)
New Brain

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Composer and Lyricist: William Finn
Playwright: Rachel Sheinkin Conceiver and Co-Director Rebecca Feldman
Co-Director Michael Unger
Musical Direction & Dance Arrangements: Vadim Feichtner (who's also the pianist)
Associate Musical Director: Carmel Dean Choreographer Dan Knechtges
Cast : Derrick Baskin Mitch Mahoney), Deborah S. Craig (Gramercy Park) , Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Leaf Coneybear), Dan Fogler( William Barfee), Lisa Howard* (Guidance Counselor Rona Janett), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Olive Ostrovsky), Jay Reiss (Vice Principal Douglas Panch), Sarah Saltzberg (Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre) and Robb Sapp (Tripp Barrington).
Set Designer: Beowulf Boritt
Sound Designer: Randy Hansen
Lighting Designer: Tyler Micoleau
Costume Designer: Jen Caprio.
Barrington Stage on Stage II Consolati Performing Arts Center in Sheffield.
Tickets: 413-528-8888 or
at July 8 through August 1, 2004; opening July 15th
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, without an intermission
Review by Elyse Sommerbased on July 15th press opening
Closing 1/20/08, after 21 previews and 1,136 regular performances.

Musical Numbers
  • 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee/Company
  • My Friend the Dictionary/Olive & Rona
  • Pandemonium/Company
  • I'm Not that Smart/Coneybear
  • Magic Foot/Barfee & Spellers
  • Pandemonium (reprise)/
  • Tripp, Mitch & Company
  • Serenity Prayer/Mitch
  • Finalists/Rona & Spellers
  • My Unfortunate Erection/Tripp
  • Why I Love Spelling/Company
  • Woe is Me/Logan, Dan & Carl
  • I'm Not That Smart (reprise)/Coneybear
  • I Don't Remember Anything At All/Rona
  • I Speak Six Languages/Gramercy & Girls
  • The I Love You Song/Olive, Olive's Mom & Dad
  • I Always Come In Second/The Two Finalists
  • Finale/Company
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