It’s hard to imagine sweeter vindication for all the brainiac pariahs doomed throughout their school years to nerd status than “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” And it’s especially sweet that William Finn’s delightful musical about the awkward path to adulthood has negotiated the transition to Broadway with all its modesty and charms intact. In fact, rather than interpret the move from Off Broadway as a mandate to pump up the size and slickness, the show’s creatives have shrewdly nurtured its low-tech, idiosyncratic spirit in refreshing ways, making resourceful use of their new home at Circle in the Square.
One of the smallest Broadway theaters and arguably the most problematic space to fill, the Circle tends to work best as a venue when its elongated thrust stage is radically transformed — becoming a wading pool in Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” for instance — or when its tiered horseshoe seating layout and absence of barriers are consciously utilized to enhance audience participation, as they were in “The Rocky Horror Show.”
That aspect has informed the smart decisions made by director James Lapine and set designer Beowulf Boritt in transferring “Spelling Bee.” Giving the quirky musical the semblance almost of an environmental production, Boritt has treated one of Broadway’s least ornate, most institutional houses as a blank canvas, cleverly transforming it into an average American middle school.
From the kids’ poster art, kiosk menu and photographs of geeky young achievers (Finn and music director Vadim Feichtner among them) that adorn the lobby, to the Putnam Piranha team pennants, school sponsor banners and the relabeled Boys and Girls restrooms, the theater feels disconcertingly like a school auditorium. And the actual set is now even more clearly defined as a gymnasium/basketball court, drolly identified on a large banner as a Bully-Free Zone.
In reconfiguring the show, Lapine has made extensive use of the audience space, more often spilling the action over into the aisles as each eliminated contestant departs, or notably, in “Pandemonium,” when the pressure of competing causes the tightly wound participants momentarily to run riot. In one of the more inspired reinventions, Jesus now appears from the rear of the theater in a haze of smoke and white light, descending just a few steps to address the spiritually searching bee contestant below from on high.
What’s most apparent in the new space, however, is the heightened immediacy between the show’s contestants and the audience, who could conceivably be proud parents, relatives and classmates hanging on every spelling challenge as the kids face off in the regional final. Indeed, it seems significant that the applause after difficult words are aced is as vigorous as it is after musical numbers.
The paradox of this increased intimacy in a larger theater — with respect to the show’s original home beneath the Second Stage proscenium — serves the material splendidly in terms of strengthening our investment in these misfit characters, whose eagerness to excel in the spelling bee echoes deeper yearnings.
Logainne (Sarah Saltzberg) wants to please her two demanding gay dads; Leaf (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) wants to measure up intellectually to his smarter siblings; overachieving Marcy (Deborah S. Craig) wants the freedom to be less than superhuman; Chip (Jose Llana) wants to explore his hyperactive libido; the pompous and porcine William (Dan Fogler) just wants to be liked; and Olive (Celia Keenan-Bolger) craves release from solitude and the love of her distracted parents.
The gentle refinement with which Lapine, Finn and book writer Rachel Feldman nudge the poignancy from amid the hilarious comedy of these kids’ stories — all of them except Olive played by the talented adult cast as exaggerated caricatures — now seems an even more skillful balance.
There have also been some amusing tweaks to the script, such as politically aware Logainne’s comments on Benedict XVI: “As the progressive, half-Jewish child of two gay fathers, I really don’t think this new pope has my best interests at heart.”
While remaining primarily driven by the composer’s witty lyrics, Finn’s melodies have acquired a slightly more robust sound in Michael Starobin’s orchestrations, played by a five-piece band led by Feichtner on piano. Dan Knechtges’ appealingly unpolished choreography has been elaborated in places to fill the larger stage, notably in William’s daffy soft-shoe, “Magic Foot.”
A well-knit ensemble that knows just how to find the human foibles of their cartoonish characters and to play off each other with affectionate ease, the cast from Second Stage remains unchanged. And as the bee’s adult supervisors, Lisa Howard and Jay Reiss manage the remarkable feat of staying in character while clearly having an infectiously good time shepherding the show’s audience participants.
Howard even made note at the press night attended of Circle in the Square’s location next door to the Gershwin, introducing one recruit wearing a green jacket with: “Miss Skidmore just came in from the Emerald City over at ‘Wicked.’ ” That “Spelling Bee” has succeeded not only in maintaining but even amplifying its spontaneity despite the increased commercial stakes of a Broadway move reflects the freshness of this big-hearted little show.