To the Letter
PacRep delivers a clever but cartoonish '25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.'
Thursday, December 3, 2009
William Finn handled the music and lyrics and Rachel Sheinkin wrote the book (narrative) for this musical farce, which they adapted from Rebecca Feldman’s improvisational play, C-R-E-S-P-U-S-C-L-E. And it maintains strains of open-ended improv: Audience members are invited to sign up prior to the show for three to four slots as additional spellers in the bee, and throughout the show, are called upon to spell various words. Rep. Al Sharpton was recruited into a Broadway performance, as was Julie Andrews (her word was “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which she misspelled).
In PacRep’s version, directed by Stephen Moorer, Rona Lisa Peretti (Lydia Lyons), a former Putnam County Spelling Bee champ and the event’s emcee, gets everyone up to speed and relays some of the rules of the “competition,” including turning off mobile phones and abstaining from taking pictures. Several in the audience obeyed last Saturday night, reaching for the offending gadgets. Lyons stayed in character, and though she addressed the audience of the Golden Bough Theatre (breaking the fourth wall, it’s called), it’s the audience of the Putnam Valley Junior High School she’s talking to, effectively recruiting us to her side.
She introduces her co-judge, Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Michael Blackburn), and each contestant. Chip Tolentino (Chris Marcos), in his Boy Scout uniform and thick glasses, sports an Alfalfa-like cowlick sticking straight up from his otherwise thoroughly combed-down hair (a telling bit of foreshadowing). Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Emily Grosland) is a diminutive blondie in pigtails who is being raised by a pushy gay couple, hence her conjoined last name. Leaf Coneybear (Kenneth Allen Neely) wears a cape, tie-dyed shirt, a bike helmet (which he needs, as he’s prone to pratfalls), and glides about on skate shoes. There’s an ongoing joke in which people pronounce the last name of contestant William Barfée (Tim Hart) as “barf-y,” despite his persistent correction of “bar-fay.” Marcy Park (Tara Marie Lucido) is an overachieving Asian-American girl yearning for mediocrity. Olive Ostrovsky (Erica Racz) is a sweetie in pink overalls who, throughout the competition, refers to the empty seats she saved for her absent parents.
Ex-convict Mitch Mahoney (Michael Blackburn) performs community service by standing in as a “comfort counselor” to the losing contestants. At first, he’s drill sergeant mean. When he asks everyone to rise for the pledge of allegiance, he snaps a look at the kids on the bleachers, who bolt up to their feet. Then he turns his look on the Golden Bough/Putnam Valley audience, who dutifully rise for the pledge.
Crowds and critics adore this 2005 musical, granting it two out of the six Tonys it was nominated for, and quickly elevating it from Off-Broadway to Broadway to stages across the world. It’s cartoonishly goofy, a colorful, noisy collision of musical comedy, base kid humor (William Barfée ceremoniously sticks his finger up his nostril, and all the actors ham up their kids) and wry adult stuff, like when Logainne’s two fathers quibble about whether their daughter has the stamina to endure the studying. One looks at the other’s pants and says dismissively, “Don’t you tell me about stamina.” It threatens to get emotional when little Olive Ostrovsky sings longingly for her absent parents, but the whole affair is so silly the earnestness doesn’t stick. The musical numbers are performed purposefully and theatrically amateurish, as a kid would, and its busy choreography is interspersed with freewheeling moments of improvisation from the recruited audience members, who gamely played along (one Jeff Volberg even stunned the cast when he correctly spelled a word that was hand picked to disqualify him; he says he just winged it). To PacRep’s credit, they weaved in the participant ad libs nicely, cracking specific jokes on each of them (when one asked for the definition of “cow,” the co-judge replied, tersely, “It means cow”) and hitting their marks on punchlines and musical numbers.
The audience liked the local references sprinkled in: The definition of “Mexican” included “American slang for anyone from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or Salinas.” And Rona explains the absence of another judge: “[He] is counting ballots for that misguided attempt to turn Putnam Valley into a city.”
As a whole, Putnam feels like a true kids’ musical, combined with an adult satire of a kids’ musical. So sugary songs like Leaf’s “I’m Not That Smart” share the same stage with Chip’s solo song called “My Unfortunate Erection,” which is about just what it sounds like. And the whole thing plays out like that: goofy/bright, innocent/knowing, childlike/adult. In some cities, two versions are offered: one for kids, one for those 16 and over. The ideal audience for PacRep’s version is adults, but not without their inner kid.