One of the trickiest words in the climactic competition faceoff of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is weltanschauung, defined here by a finalist as “one’s personal perspective, your philosophy, the way you look at the world.” Used in a sentence, as the rules of the bee allow, it might be: The weltanschauung revealed in composer-lyricist William Finn and book writer Rachel Sheinkin’s winsome and winning new musical is so generously warm-hearted, only the most bitter misanthrope could resist its charms.
Heart is by no means the only thing this delightful character-driven show has going for it. Sure, it’s eccentrically humanistic and idiosyncratically witty, as is to be expected from the composer of “Falsettos” and “A New Brain.” But it’s also perhaps Finn’s most overtly comedic musical and probably his most widely accessible.
Given that Second Stage’s season schedule permits at most a two-week extension beyond the limited run’s March 6 closing date, transfer seems inevitable. Whether it’s a larger Off Broadway house or a Broadway theater remains the big question. The show’s quirky personality seems ideally suited to an intimate venue. But wasn’t that what was said when talk first surfaced of shifting “Avenue Q” from the Vineyard Theater to Broadway, where it found commercial success and Tony triumph?
A peculiarly American form of psychological torment for preteen kids from across the geographical, ethnic and class divide, the spelling bee figures in Fox Searchlight’s upcoming film of Myla Goldberg’s 2001 novel, “Bee Season,” and in the hit documentary “Spellbound,” optioned for development as a musical by Disney Theatrical Prods. Finn and Sheinkin’s “Spelling Bee” was spun from an improvisational piece , originally titled “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E” by Rebecca Feldman (who gets a “conceived by” credit) with her company the Farm.
The musical deftly sketches a regional spelling bee as a place of acceptance for brainy, socially challenged misfits navigating the treacherous path into puberty. Like “A Chorus Line,” this is a show about a diverse group thrown together in a highly competitive environment who discover and reveal much about themselves as they vie for selection. The drive to win ultimately becomes secondary, however, as “Spelling Bee” finds the beauty in being a runner-up.
What’s especially remarkable is the way in which the adult actors disappear into their awkward-age characters and how those characters evolve from broad comic caricatures into more complex figures, each with his own vulnerability and specialness. This is a credit to the writers, to the sure-handed, coaxing touch of director and frequent Finn collaborator James Lapine and to the uniformly sparkling cast.
The kids include former champ and alpha male-in-the-making Chip Tolentino (Jose Llana); Asian-American overachiever Marcy Park (Deborah S. Craig); plump and pompous William Barfee (Dan Fogler); home-schooled oddball Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson); Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Saltzberg), wound as tight as her braids; and Olive Ostrovsky (Celia Keenan-Bolger), a sweet, unassuming girl with an overextended father and a mother absent on a spiritual quest. Olive becomes the emotional center of the show.
Each kid gets his or her own signature number: In Leaf’s “I’m Not that Smart,” he laments being the least intellectually gifted spawn of his large, competitive family; William’s “Magic Foot” is an Al Jolson-style vaudeville ditty in which the hefty lad shows off his fancy footwork spelling technique; Olive’s “My Friend, the Dictionary” is a tender confession of finding comfort in solitude; Chip’s “My Unfortunate Erection” follows a moment of female distraction that costs him dearly; Schwartzy’s “Woe Is Me” is about living up to her two gay dads’ expectations; and Marcy’s “I Speak Six Languages” illustrates her prowess both academic and athletic, not to mention ballet, baton-twirling, martial arts and musicianship, bumping music director Vadim Feichtner from his seat at the piano to take over.
Finn’s rhymes in these songs are among his most nimble and funny: “On the rare occasions when I’m licked/And my thinking grows flaccid/I feel my bile duct constrict/And my stomach fill with acid,” sings Logainne.
Comic standouts among the performers are Fogler, who somehow makes his sneering lump of a boy endearing; and Ferguson, whose face contorts into a possessed, cross-eyed cartoon as he spews out each word, letter by letter.
The cast’s legitimate adults are no less engaging. As Rona Lisa Peretti, a former spelling bee champion and returning host, Lisa Howard crafts a hilarious mix of stern superiority and maternal warmth. Jay Reiss scores some of the show’s biggest laughs as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, looking to recover his dignity after a nervous “incident” at an earlier bee. Panch’s context sentences for the chosen words are priceless: “Strabismus: In the schoolyard Billy protested that he wasn’t cockeyed. ‘I suffer from strabismus,’ he said, whereupon the bullies beat him harder.”
Dispensing hugs and juice boxes to eliminated contestants as part of the community service requirement of his parole, Mitch Mahoney (Derrick Baskin) also has moments, not least of them his rousing gospel-style “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.”
The show’s other key element is its audience participation. Four pre-selected audience members are summoned onstage, even being amusingly maneuvered into choreographic participation in “Pandemonium,” about the randomness of the win-lose dynamic. Howard’s perky introductions of each speller are especially delicious when these unprepared recruits step up to the mike. (“Miss Rothstein is Jewish!” “Mr. Weiss is recovering from head lice!”) Involvement on press night of a sharp speller who aced elimination questions increased the spontaneity.
Almost all the songs here are comic flavored and far more memorable for their clever lyrics than their cheerfully Broadway-generic melodies. The one exception is Olive’s poignant “The I Love You Song/Mama,” a heartfelt account of the acute longing fed by her parents’ separation. This is touchingly sung by the appealing Keenan-Bolger and Howard (doubling as Olive’s mother), the cast’s best voices.
Beowulf Boritt’s simple school auditorium set — complete with basketball hoop, mobile bleachers and occasional glimpses into the world beyond — is a neat fit for this enormously satisfying small-scale musical.
And Jennifer Caprio’s costumes help amusingly define each character, from Marcy’s convent-school (Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows) uniform to Chip’s boy scout togs to Leaf’s bizarrely creative (“Mr. Coneybear makes his own clothes”) hippie patchwork outfit.