Arriving spectators at “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” are thrust into a middle-school milieu by a pitch-perfect panorama of inspirational banners, announcements of pep rallies and student awards. But at the Wadsworth there’s no need for the poster reading “Only positive attitudes allowed beyond this point,” so lovable and captivating are the original Gotham thesps reunited for the occasion. Fizzy amalgam of improv, audience participation, scenes, songs and spelling speaks to the broken-eyeglassed misfit in all of us; from beginning to end it’s a delight. D-E-L-I-G-H-T. Delight.
Librettist Rachel Sheinkin merited her Tony for tuner’s structure alone, elegantly balancing both celebration and critique of winner-take-all spelling bees while fixing an equally satirical and sympathetic eye on Putnam County’s six variously nerdy local champs vying for a slot at nationals. Room is left for some site-specificity as well (two contestants: “Ooh, I’ve never been in a gymnasium on the grounds of a VA hospital before.” “I’ve never been in a gymnasium before.”)
Major theme of the jaunty first half is life’s random unfairness, whether the food-allergy challenges of maladjusted William Barfee (Dan Fogler), the seven smarter siblings endured by wistful Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), the first stirrings of puberty proving the undoing of Chip Torentino (Jose Llana), or just one contestant’s getting “omphaloskepsis” while another gets “crayon.” “Life is pandemonium!” goes the chaotic breakout number, as the kids run riot and pull the four aud member contestants into Dan Knechtges’s exuberant movement patterns.
Once the civilians have been sent home with a hug and a juice box (and at the preview perf attended, one proved surprisingly difficult to dislodge), helmer James Lapine deftly shifts to a more contemplative tone to examine the outside factors that impact kids’ lives, from the compulsive overachieving that plagues prodigy Marcy Park (Deborah S. Craig) to the influence of parents, whether absent or over-present.
William Finn’s score — tricky lyrics complemented by a kid-like, rinky-tink piano sound — bolsters the show’s comic and emotional cores throughout. The former is best seen in “Magic Foot,” William’s showstopping demo of his secret spelling weapon, and the latter via the shy Olive (Celia Keenan-Bolger). She could be speaking for all six when she sings of “My Friend the Dictionary” (words won’t let you down like people do), and later assays a heartbreaking “I Love You” ballad to her mom in an overseas ashram.
Of the grownups, Lisa Howard holds the bee’s reins with warmth and composure (and a magnificent soprano), while Derrick Baskin, comforting each eliminated speller in some unspecified community service capacity, adds a leavening dose of street smarts in his witty asides. Jay Reiss’ comic timing and exasperated presence are ever-welcome in his fuzzily written vice principal role.
As for the students, three years with the show (minus time off for TV and other theater work) have perfected thesps’ evocation of adolescence through subtly chosen traits devoid of caricature, and they play together like a well-traveled chamber ensemble.
Everyone’s a winner here, unlike in the bee and real life. Sarah Saltzberg, as Logainne the lisping, politically engaged daughter of two gay dads, easily wins Most Amusingly Intense; Keenan-Bolger Best Singer; and Llana Most Versatile as he plummets from odds-on favorite to candy butcher, with a brief late-inning appearance as Jesus.
Since Fogler already possesses a Tony, we’ll content him with Class Clown, and deem Ferguson and Craig Best All-Around Students for their glowing, fully inhabited portraits of adolescent angst and ultimate triumph.
Beowulf Boritt successfully adapts to a touring proscenium all the trappings of his Gotham set in which bleachers become a spinning carousel and a gym wall is transformed into the open sky, though one misses the thrust that turns aud into competitors’ virtual friends and family.
Transitions among the bee, fantasy sequences and flashbacks are never unclear thanks to Natasha Katz’s subtle lighting effects, and Jennifer Caprio’s costumes suit each character precisely while living up to archetype.