June 15, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee that has just opened at the Barrington Stage Company is a joyous, hilarious and heart-warming hip-hop musical that should pack the house for its run.
Its Berkshire roots in the lab-theatre production a few summers ago have since sprouted and flowered into a Broadway success and Tony Awards, and this well-cast and zesty production under Jeremy Dobrish’s direction is a delight all the way through its non-stop two hour run.
As for a plot, we the audience very quickly realize that we are a part of the show, sitting not in the comfortable seats of an auditorium but on bleachers in a high school gym facing a raised platform on which a spelling bee is being conducted. Six young hopefuls, all vying for first place and the chance to go the national contest, are soon augmented by four members of the audience who have volunteered to accept the spelling challenge as well.
Their names are called out and they climb up the stairs to join on the stage the six finalists, three boys and there girls in having numbers hung about their necks and be instructed by the program’s host who sits with her the assistant who will pronounce each word, give its derivation, use it in a sentence etc.
And downstage, center front is the ominous microphone at which each contestant must stand and encounter the one word that stands between him/her and the glory of going on to the National Bee.
The six in this production are stars; they convincingly, engagingly, and endearingly create the children, with ages ranging from a second grader (who as a previous third place winner gets in because the rightful contestant can’t make it) to a pubescent youth whose erection at a fateful moment distracts him into error.
The six also vary greatly in home and educational backgrounds and bring to the fray emotional baggage confusing for a child to carry, from angry self-defeat at winning last year to losing at the nationals; from failing to see daddy sitting in the aisle seat she saved for him, from thinking, just thinking as she stands to spell, “Jesus, can’t you come up with a harder word than that?” and having him suddenly appear and assure her that it is not the kind of thing he cares much about!
The six stars who so successfully thread the maze of this production are: Emy Baysic, Miguel Cervantes, Hannah Del Monte, Molly Ephraim, Clifton Guterman, and Eric Peterson. All of them sing, dance, and spell with astonishing agility. Each of them costumed distinctively down to distinctive haircuts and styles.
As the play proceeds, one sorts them, and their personalities and abilities, out, and realizes their young vulnerability, cloaked in hostility in some, in insecurity or ego in others. Little life plots weave in and out of the absolutely riotous laughter that washes over the play.
And holding it all together, keeping them and the plot in line are host Rona Peretti (Sally Wilfert, who years ago was a winner herself and knows the joys and griefs of the spellers) and her assistant, played by Douglas Panch who as judge must on request provide a sentence in which the word occurs. Every such sentence evoking an audience roar of delight.
And there is a ninth cast member playing at least three roles but most delightful as the “comforter.” It is he who must remove from the stage those who fail to spell a word correctly. They go differently into that good night, some meekly, but other clinging to chairs and having to be bodily carried from the room. Not an easy role but creatively and agilely rendered by Demond Green.
It would be unfair to tell who wins, how and why. And what special significance the winning has. It’s a lovely, loud, glorious little musical. How nice it grew up in our own Berkshire backyard.