You wouldn’t think that a show about students competing in a spelling bee could be much fun. For such kids that kind of thing could be a cause for serious nail-biting. Spelling a word correctly can be a major problem for any of us in the privacy of our own confrontations with keyboards and monitors. However we can always use Spellcheck. (uh-oh: a red line under the preceding word tells me that Spell Check does not validate that version of its name). Imagine, then, if, in front of a large assemblage of people, some of whom, including familial companions, seek your vanquishment, in your innocent youth, you had to correctly verbalize the letters of opaque words contained in intricate phrases which could even perplex adults. If you see what I mean.
It turns out, though, that Rachel Sheinkin, Rebecca Feldman, Jay Reiss and William Finn’s musical The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee not only provides a lot of fun, it also has acute observations about such an event. And a Carnegie Mellon School of Drama cast comes up with the right responses to the challenges, guided with wit and invention by visiting director Joe Deer, who has major off-Broadway credits. Speaking of credits, this double- Tony winner from 2005 ran on Broadway for 2 years and eight months.
Fundamentally the focus is on the competition itself, during which the contest’s organizer and successful real estate agent Rona Lisa Peretti (Rona Lisa they have named you; you’re so like the lady with the mystic smile) tells the audience about the backgrounds of the kids and it’s up to Vice- Principal Douglas Panch of Lake Hemingway-Dos Passos Junior High to read the words and give follow-up definitions. Those are the sources of constant laughs. Likewise an hilarious surprise: a non-parochial school visit by Jesus Christ. Among the other added unexpected attractions: pre-show, audience members have a chance to participate up close by volunteering to be on- stage contestants
Throughout, on the serious, significant side, there are scenes flashing back into the kids’ past, seeing the roles their parents play or don’t play at this important moment in the lives of their children. Some of the adults are pushy. Some are absent. i.e This is more than a light entertainment.
Kaleigh Cronin, interpreting Rona Lisa, stands out with superb singing plus a believable characterization of a no longer young woman. She’s one of two CMU students alternating in the role. Among the kid contestants I found Darren Bluestone sweetly charming as home-schooled Leaf Coneybear who comes from a large family of former hippies and constantly is challenged to spell the names of South American rodents. Kyle Rotter likewise leaves a strong impression playing nerdy William Barfée whose allergy to peanuts and the absence of a working nostril always threatens his survival. Plus in the role of over-achiever Marcy Park, Gabriel McClinton does wonders displaying the girl’s multiple talents.
Everyone sings and dances capably, but being in good voice isn’t required considering that such characters would be transitioning into puberty. Meanwhile the songs by William Finn mostly sound more utilitarian than musically interesting although a couple of them have attractive Sondheim-like harmonies.
Dramaturg Nicholas Mudd provides interesting background notes in the program book. But he says nothing at all about Finn or Rachel Sheinkin, co-creators of this wonderful show.
Finn’s musical Falsettos received the 1992 Tony Awards for Best Music and Lyrics and for Best Book. He’s also well-known for a musical loosely based on his near-death experience following brain surgery, A New Brain, which starred Malcolm Gets, Kristin Chenoweth and Chip Zien at Lincoln Center Theater in 1998 and won the 1999 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical. Now he’s responsible for the songs in a musical version of the movie Little Miss Sunshine which just opened at California’s La Jolla Playhouse.
Rachel Sheinkin wrote the book for a musical version of Little House on the Prairie originating in 2008 at Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. It had a subsequent national tour and a production at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. She’s worked on a theatre project with the rock trio GrooveLily, Striking 12. It played off-Broadway in 2006. She wrote the book for a musical called Sleeping Beauty Wakes created for L.A. acting company Deaf West plus Blood Drive a musical produced by Bridewell Theatre, London. Sheinkin is also on the faculty of New York’s Tisch School of The Arts and teaches at Yale School of Drama.
Such facts as these are frequently missing from programs of small, amateur theatre companies. In fact such absence underscores amateurishness, as if the producers are indifferent to the writers without whom they’d have no show. Often their program books contain substantial paragraphs about less significant backstage people such as assistant stage managers, word space which could be better used. In this, dramaturg Mudd used two full pages for a crossword “Brainteaser” which, although a clever idea, should not substitute for telling audience members about the creative artists whose work is the foundation for the entire enterprise. Considering that this comes from a university which is supposed to teach students about theatre, the absence discredits a highly regarded institution.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through February 26th at New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. Info and tickets: 412/ 268-2407 and www.cmu.edu/cfa/drama