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Theater Review: This ...Bee... Gets an A

Very Nice Show, No Matter How You Spell It

By Bill Andrews

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The Wilbur Theatre

Through Dec. 31, 2006

For some reason, when I saw “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (“Spelling Bee”) I was reminded of nothing more than the show, “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” This is somewhat odd, since I’ve never seen it. Still, I’d always believed it to be a show ostensibly for kids, with adults playing the famous children (and beagle) of the Peanuts comic strip, which turns out to be a meaningful and deep show about philosophy, and, ultimately, life itself. I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but that’s just what “Bee” is: it’s a show that fulfilled all my expectations and then some.

To begin, yes: it’s a whole musical about a spelling bee. And in case you doubt how a whole show is about a spelling bee, any of us who have actually taken part in a bee can tell you, there’s more than enough drama and suspense going on to fill any show. The story focuses on six children (played amazingly convincingly by actors in their 20s) competing in the bee, the winner of which goes on to the national competition in DC and riches and glory. To make things even more interesting (and hilarious) audience members can participate in a drawing before the show to take part in the festivities; the winners then go on stage and add to the fun themselves. This worked surprisingly well, not just to add competitors and work in some early drama (kicking people out of the bee without losing a cast member), but also to establish the mood of the show. It was just plain hilarious seeing the hapless audience members, up there trying to learn the dance that the cast is doing around them, and smiling sheepishly as everyone around them sings harmoniously. You really get the sense of a competition where the kids are nervous and not as poised as regular adults might be.

Indeed, the whole show was pretty humorous. First of all, the six spellers are interesting and quirky as only pre-adolescents can be. William Barfee (pronounced Bar-FAY, “there’s an accent aigu”) is the typical socially awkward and obnoxious nerd we know so well around here; Marcy Park is the overachieving Asian girl who famously “speaks six languages,” also perhaps a familiar personality at MIT. Leaf Coneybear, Olive Ostrovsky, Chip Tolentino, and the diminutive Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre are the other spellers, each with his or her own hopes, desires, and backgrounds. Mitch Mahoney, the Comfort Counselor (fulfilling his community service requirement), Vice Principal Panch, and Rona Lisa Peretti round out the cast as the adults in the room, who bring a sense of the real world to the performance. Though not an expansive cast, it’s very impressive how efficiently the cast was used (having some spellers change mannerisms and a scarf to become another’s parent, for example) and how full the performance seemed. This is a show where the whole ensemble takes center stage, and without such a strong cast it just couldn’t work. Luckily, these nine actors mesh perfectly, recreating the crazy dynamic kids have with each other, and accurately portraying relationships with authority figures and family.

But the cast is only half the funny. As I mentioned, having clueless “civilians” up on stage with the professionals was great, and the words themselves, when used in a sentence as per the speller’s request, elicited the most laughter of all. Honestly, how can “kinkajou” and “Xanadu” not be funny just by themselves? For most of the show, I was laughing like I was at a comedy club.

However, what makes Spelling Bee truly impressive is how smoothly it segues from goofy songs about erections (the cause of someone’s loss) and magic feet, to songs about feeling burned out, unloved, and (of course) about losing. There can only be one winner, regardless of what we and they want, and the end was surprisingly bittersweet. It’s still a happy ending, of course, but it’s a real-life happy ending, one tempered with all those lousy adult problems, and not so many magic feet.

In the end, it was a great show that reminds us what it is to be a child and an adult, a winner and a loser. Not too many shows could pull that off, while being amazingly funny at the same time. Plus, now I know how to spell “syzygy.” That’s something even Snoopy can’t offer.

A limited number of $25 lottery tickets are offered at every performance: see for details.