Middle school is hard enough to sit through. Imagine a middle school spelling bee. It is usually torture for those on stage and off. It doesn’t necessarily last long but feels like an eternity anyway. It’s tense and humorless. Whenever words are used in a sentence, the result might as well be cribbed from a how-to manual on hanging shower-curtain rings. Audiences are slight. They can be onerous. The few people who turn out to county spelling bees almost always have a child in play, and odds are they’ll walk away somewhere between disappointed and crushed, since there can only be one winner.
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Now take all those dynamics, reverse them, and you get the unlikely charms of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the Flagler Playhouse’s 33rd-season inaugural musical comedy, which opened Friday and runs through Oct. 9.
The participants are still middle school misfits, all of them bundles of quirks and neuroses, but lovable down to their knee-high socks, lisps, butt-clenching knickers and white-boy Afros. The competition lasts about two hours but packs more laughs in a minute than your average 22-minute sitcom. (Phylactery: May I have a sentence please? “Billy, put down that phylactery—we’re Episcopalian.”) The audience is likely to be very large, loud and cheerful, and of course every one of the misfits on stage proves to be a winner beyond the cliché.
You can’t help but root for Leaf Coneybear (John Eidman), the stick-figured, cape-wearing nerd (“I’ve never been in a gymnasium before”) who’d never have made it to the bee had his school’s real winner and runner-up not had to be at a bar mitzvah. Or the abandoned Olive Ostrovsky (Caitlin Eriser) whose roadkill costume won her second place at a Halloween contest while her mom has left her for a year to find herself at an ashram in India. Or Chip Tolentino (Vince Mirabile), the cocky ace speller until an erection interferes (“My unfortunate erection/Is destroying my perfection,” he sings, after turning snack-vendor, “Anyone for buying the shit that I’m selling/Because my stiffy has ruined my spelling?” That verbal dropping is as racy as the play gets). Not to worry: stiffed Chip redeems himself in a Jesus Christ cameo that Woody Allen could’ve written. Or Schwarzy, short for Schwartzandgrubiennaire (Agata Sokolska, our local Zooey Deschanel understudy), “head of the Gay-Straight Alliance at her elementary school” and the product of two gay dads. She can’t spell without first fingering-out the word on her forearm.
The cast of nine is augmented in the first half by members of the audience picked mostly at random right before the play to join the actors on stage, as spellers. The Playhouse is making sure it’s not picking actor wannabes but the sort of people who, like the misfits, wouldn’t know what to do with themselves on stage or who may pass for local celebrities—the odd mayor or county commissioner or school board member, who are encouraged to show up. That element of the unexpected gives each evening its feel of improv. The pronouncer, incidentally, is the slightly postal vice-principal, Douglas Panch (the perfectly stiff Terence Van Auken and his equally stiff pocket protector) because, as sidekick Rona Lisa Peretti (Carrie Van Tol) tells us, “unfortunately our pronouncer, Superintendent Janet Valentine, is unable to attend. She is in Egypt, interviewing with Bill Delbrugge.”
Other delicious performances include Van Tol’s Peretti, whose starched and taut blue dress seems to ache for a stain, and Beau Wade’s very physical William Barfee, the Afro- bear of a guy who can’t spell anything without writing it out on the floor with his foot, and whose name is the running pun of the show.
The play was written by Rachel Sheinkin, who in 2005 got the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for best book for “Spelling Bee.” (The play got five Tony awards in all.) The writing more than anything is what keeps the play’s momentum going: it’s sharp and quick-witted, combining just enough satire and social commentary (“she’s pro-choice but still a virgin,” goes one character’s sum-up) with concessions to each character’s idiosyncrasies, keeping the story from tripping into the maudlin or the formulaic. The weaknesses here are the music and the lyrics: neither adds much to the show, and at times even detracts from it. The music is surprisingly forgettable, considering the composer: William Finn. The lyrics are bunches of terrific epigrams but don’t add up to songs, exactly. They rather live up to one of the numbers’ title (“Pandemonium”).
As always in community theater, most of the actors can’t pull off the demands on the voice—I’m not blaming them: no one expects Broadway-quality singing on State Road 100—though just as always, there are notable exceptions: Caitlin Eriser’s Olive Ostrovsky may be uncertain of herself. Her voice isn’t.
“The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee” is inspired at least in part by the reality show genre, where foibles and insecurities make up the bulk of the material—and the audience’s attraction: train wrecks are interesting. The difference with Sheinkin’s writing is the absence of that mean-spiritedness that make reality shows unbearable to watch without suspending one’s sense of empathy.
Half-way through the show the improvising audience members have been disqualified, as have a couple members of the main cast (though they return in alternate roles), leaving five or six contestants vying for the trophy—and our hearts. The play is entirely in character when it pulls off what looks suspiciously like a romance between the last two contestants, whose identity you’ll have to find out for yourself, though the winning word is: Weltanschauung (“meaning one’s personal perspective, your philosophy, the way you look at the world,” or a play). And in the final frames we’re told what becomes of the characters by each of them. It’s enough to leave the theater very much reassured by their variously dysfunctional fates, including Chip’s, who “made it through adolescence, and in the course of time came to appreciate his erections. As did many others.”
A Spelling Bee Gallery
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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
At the Flagler Playhouse, Sept. 23, 24, 25, 30 and Oct. 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9. Tickets are $20 for adults, $12 for students, less if you buy season tickets. Call the box office at 386/586-0773.
Music and Lyrics by William Finn; Book by Rachel Sheinkin; Directed by Judi Ernst; Musical Director: Carol Partelow; Choreographer: Wendy Ellis.
Chip Tolentino (and Jesus): Vincent Mirabile
Schwarzy: Agata Sokolska
Leaf Coneybear (and Schwarzy’s Dad): John Eidman
William Barfee (and Olive’s Dad): Beau Wade
Marcy Park: Gabriella Giuliano
Olive Ostrovsky: Caitlin Eriser
Rona Lisa Perritti (and Olive’s Mom): Carrie Van Tol
Douglas Panch: Terence Van Auken
Mitch Mahoney (and Dan Dad): Peter F Gutierrez
Micky: Valerie Betts
Originally published on Sept. 25, 2011