If you've suffered through the angst of puberty (who hasn't?), you'll identify with the characters in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This recent musical by William Finn (it was a Broadway hit and Tony nominee a year ago) is a winning combination of comedy and tunes that will catch you off-guard.
Built around the stress-inducing scenario of a spelling bee, this show presents six adolescents — played by young adult actors — who run the gamut from cocky and smart to shy and overwhelmed. Each is vividly drawn and will remind you of someone you once knew, if not yourself.
The humor is ramped up by four spellers from the audience (don't be scared — they're volunteers; you won't end up onstage unless you want to be there) — so the humor changes from performance to performance as Vice Principal Douglas Panch (James Kall) offers words, definitions and amusing sentences while former winner Rona Lisa Peretti (Jennifer Simard) provides hushed "color" commentary about each speller.
On opening night, Cincinnati Reds owner Bob Castellini was a volunteer speller. He was introduced as "president of the produce club" (his first word to spell was "Mexicans") and identified as "the first kid in junior high with totally gray hair." The show incorporates lots of local references, including the names of area schools.
While the music is not especially memorable, it has numbers that are comic gems: "Pandemonium" (emotions run wild), "Magic Foot" (speller William Barfée, played by Eric Petersen, traces words on the floor with his foot before spelling them aloud) and "My Unfortunate Erection" (Miguel Cervantes plays Chip Tolentino, last year's winner whose mind is elsewhere this time around). The show's humor often caters to gross adolescence, and that's part of the fun. The opening night audience, largely unfamiliar with the show, seemed to enjoy it immensely.
Spelling Bee is performed without an intermission (it's about 100 minutes). Its more intimate moments would play better in a smaller theater; the set, a school gymnasium, is framed to fill the Aronoff's big stage, but it seems out of proportion. Otherwise this production is letter-perfect. Grade: B+
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, presented by Broadway Across America, continues through Nov. 26.