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Can you spell F-U-N? A word meaning a good time,
enjoyment, lotsa laughing. Used in a sentence? "The 25th
Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a helluva lot of fun.
The little show that could, beginning as an off-off Broadway experiment and going on to scoop up a fair share of the Tonys, is more than an extension of the current spelling bee craze (another example: Spellbound). Its a touching and hilarious look at life in the adolescent lane from the point of view of six adorably nerdy middle schoolers and, from time to time, their parents and teachers.
So, what does it have going for it besides a witty book by Rachel Sheinkin, delightful music by William Finn (Falsettos) and spot-on direction by James Lapine (Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods)? Well, theres cruelty, pathos, jealousy, suspense, the struggle between good and evil, a little romance and a surprise cameo appearance by the most famous celebrity of all time. And sex, with a wonderful paean to an ill-timed erection. All this in an hour and 45 minutes, without intermission. What have you got to lose?
Of course, in the actual spelldown, somebody has to lose. But, from a show business perspective, every one of these kids is a winner, from the delightfully goofy hippie-child Leaf Coneybear (Stanley Bahorek) to the more-than-perfect Marcy Park (Greta Lee). The wholly obnoxious William Barfee (Jared Gertner) can spell circles around the others with his magic foot but gets called Barfy just the same. His true love, the neglected but brilliant Olive Ostrovsky, is an appealing Jenni Barber. Sara Inbar, as the activist child of two gay fathers struggles, as do all these kids to live up to expectations.
No less delightful are the grownups in the group, Betsy Wolfe as the too-perky moderator and, especially, Jim Cashman as the neurotic assistant principal who hands out the words. Cashmans use of the word in a sentence, when requested by a contestant, provides some of the funniest moments in this very funny show. Then theres Mitch, the Comfort Counselor, who sends each loser off to oblivion with a hug and a juice box. Mitch is doing this as part of his community service sentence and the burly James Monroe Iglehart a
March 3, 2006 - Suzanne Weiss