No one captures exquisite inner pain and pleasures better than composer William Finn, whose tuners “Falsettos” and “A New Brain” and song cycle “Elegies” are just the most notable examples of his signature style of smart and tender angst. In “The 25th Annual Putnam County Bee,” receiving its world preem after a workshop earlier this year at Barrington Stage Co., Finn turns to a special kind of American ritualistic self-abuse known as the spelling bee and creates one of the funniest, sweetest and quirkiest small-scale musicals to come along in a long time. It’s destined to have a life on many professional and amateur stages alike.
The genesis of the show was a music-less piece at Rebecca Feldman’s improvisational group the Farm, and one can imagine the setup as perfect fodder for an audience-participation goof. But as the show developed, it also deepened, especially when Finn joined the team and added his vernacular-rich lyrics and engaging music, giving even stereotypical characters specificity, heart and growth. A new and fuller show emerged that maintains the spirit of improv but also displays the craft of pros who want to make the spontaneity stick to something real. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (not the snappiest of titles) has it both ways.
The delights are in the details, as evidenced not only in this show — which has a hilarious script by Rachel Sheinkin — but in hit documentary “Spellbound,” which follows a group of kids to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. (“Where they treat you well because you spell,” goes a Finn lyric.) Both works examine these smart, self-aware, socially inexperienced pre-teens who find comfort in their camaraderie and safety in the world of words.
In “Spelling Bee,” the experience is more loose, buoyant and low-tech. (With one piano and a no-frills set, it’s a kind of musical “Love Letters.”) It is, after all, a county-level competition, so the setting is as bare-bones as a school auditorium (which Barrington’s Stage II pretty much is).
Six adult actors playing bright young bulbs — joined by four audience members at every perf — struggle with their pubescent insecurities as they get swept up in the great American quest to be the last speller standing. (At the perf reviewed, New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin was plucked from the aud. He did well among his competitors and took defeat gracefully, along with his consolation prize of apple juice.)
Of course, any elimination contest has its own intrinsic narrative power (just think of “A Chorus Line”). But this show’s infectious nature and its affection for vulnerable outsiders bring to mind the spirit of a group of hip, young, contemporary works that speak to the sunnier-though-complex side of life — and perhaps a new audience as well: “Hairspray,” “Avenue Q” and “Zanna, Don’t.”
The composer’s take is clearly his own, and nobody understands, sympathizes and loves wiseguys under severe stress more than Finn. “Woe Is Me” deals good-naturedly with a youth (Sarah Saltzberg) who has to cope with one of her two dads’ unrelenting pressure to succeed. “I’m Not That Smart” centers on a nerdy boy (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) who likes his hair a little too much and struggles with being almost-bright. Celia Keenan-Bolger (late of “The Light in the Piazza”) plays Olive, a sweetheart of an underdog who finds solace from her split parents with “My Friend the Dictionary.”
Robb Sapp plays a youth whose puberty gets in the way of his concentration in “My Unfortunate Erection.” (“My stiffy has ruined my spelling,” he sadly sings.) Deborah S. Craig plays Gramercy Park, the overachiever who sings, dances, plays field hockey, twirls a baton and even takes over on the piano from music director Vadim Feichtner in the middle of her song in “I Speak Six Languages.”
The standout is Dan Fogler as William Barfee, the peanut-intolerant student with a rare mucus-membrane disorder (“My whole life I was only breathing through one nostril,” he says). Watching the oversized actor sing and dance “Magic Foot” (he first spells out the words with his delicate footwork) is a virtuosic delight.
All the professional adults also have their moments: Derrick Baskin as the bee’s tough and tender “enforcer”; Lisa Howard as the guidance counselor (and former spelling champ) who gives daft color commentary (“Mr. Toobin is repeating the sixth grade for the third time”); and Jay Reiss as the vice principal “with a past” — and some of the funniest word usages. (“The word is ‘raconteur,’ as in: ‘Playwright Joe Orton was a great raconteur before being bludgeoned to death by his bald lover.'”)
One could quibble with the lack of even one of Finn’s glorious ballad melodies, or the occasional actor straying a tad too close to the cartoon level. But the pleasure quotient remains high throughout the intermissionless show. With a splendid cast, terrific music and savvy writing and direction, “Spelling Bee” shows how to produce a musical “in an alphabetter way.”