Now playing at Circle in the Square on Broadway.
The cast of characters in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a field guide to early adolescent geekdom. The relentless academic overachiever, the hyperactive boy clinging to childhood, the shy introvert with an oddball sense of humor, the hormone-addled boy who crumbles into inarticulate giggles around pretty girls, the too-precocious kid who spouts her parents’ beliefs without truly understanding them—they’re all here, awkward and vulnerable and eager to please.
Spelling Bee sometimes leads a bit too hard on cliché (the overachiever is, of course, an Asian-American girl), but for the most part, it gets the kids right. They’re at the age when the pressure to grow up and fit in hasn’t yet softened or sanded off or veiled the idiosyncratic lumps of their personalities, and Spelling Bee embraces that, affectionately reveling in the young spellers’ foibles and quirks.
The cheerful little musical takes place at a spelling bee, obviously, but it liberally sprinkles the bee with flashbacks and imagined sequences and dramatized interior monologues. Adult actors play most of the middle-school-age spellers, with a few audience members thrown into the mix.
Bringing ordinary audience members on stage creates space for spontaneity, which was probably a priority because Spelling Bee is based on the fruit of an intense, two-week project that used improvisation to develop an original play. Since its beginnings as C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, the musical clearly has been polished considerably, but it retains much of the loose structure and bizarre details of something made up on the spot.
That faintly anarchic quality is a mixed blessing. It helps the musical avoid some dramatic clichés (though certainly not all), and it nourishes the many eccentric characters, but at times, all that eccentricity feels labored. Some characters have such baroque backstories that the overabundant, oh-so-quirky details distract from the characters themselves. It’s as is someone attacked a perfectly good pair of jeans with a BeDazzler. For example, all the talk of Olive’s mother’s pilgrimage to an ashram in India raises more questions that it answers, and they’re not even relevant questions! To appreciate the pain of “The I Love You Song,” Olive’s big number, all we really need to know is that Mom is away, and Dad is always busy, and little Olive feels overlooked by both.
Still, despite the muddled detailing and silly, quasi-Hindi musical touches, “The I Love You Song” is one of the more striking numbers in Spelling Bee, thanks in large part to Jessica-Snow Wilson, who plays Olive and gives the little girl a bright, powerful, yet still beautifully child-like voice. I was also fond of the frenetic rhythms in “Pandemonium,” one of the first big ensemble numbers. Those, however, were the only two songs that really stuck out to me. The rest blended together, effective but unmemorable.
Spelling Bee sparkles not because of the music or the script—both of which are uneven—but because of the great cast. Costumes help create the illusion of early adolescence (virtually anyone would look like a kid when wearing baggy pink overalls), but the actors make it real. They perfectly capture the fidgeting, the unmodulated voices, the gawkiness, the way childhood self-assurance has begun to crumble under the realities of a more grown-up world. It’s not a great musical, not a classic, but it’s sweet and charming and wildly energetic nonetheless. And for anyone who remembers what it’s like to be a kid at that age, particularly a geeky kid, the performances are pitch-perfect.