Just like "Avenue Q" two seasons ago and "Urinetown" the year before that, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is an adorable and winning small musical popping up Off-Broadway and stealing the thunder of big-budget behemoths on the Main Stem. It recently played the Second Stage and will soon transfer to the Circle In The Square.
The idea is simplicity itself: Take a competition situation and a cast of quirky outsiders, and give each participant a moment in the spotlight for an interior monologue or musical solo. Yes, "A Chorus Line" employs the same basic formula, but "Spelling Bee" gives the pattern a decidedly jagged edge. Rachel Sheinkin's book is sharply satiric without being cruel to these adolescent brainiacs or the off-center adults who love them and work them into frenzies of anxiety. William Finn's score is alternately sweet and raucous, ranging from the quietly beautiful ("My Friend, the Dictionary") to the hilarious ("My Unfortunate Erection"). Director James Lapine creates endless variations on the potentially monotonous staging of spellers parading to the microphone on Beowulf Boritt's jokey high-school auditorium set. They rev up to supersonic speed, slow down to the pace of snails, swing from ropes, tap dance, and even interact with audience members drafted to play fellow contestants. This show is a joy to watch and hear.
Even in a cast of standouts like Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Sarah Saltzberg, and Celia Keenan-Bolger, the singular Dan Fogler manages to shine brightly. He invests chubby geek William Barfee ("That's pronounced bar-FAY") with an honesty that goes beyond sketch-comedy drollery to become an icon of isolated childhood.
Performers take note: This "Bee" will most likely cast its spell beyond New York and wind up on the schedule of many a regional theatre.
This review first appeared on Backstage.com on 2/18/05.