The formula for putting together a hit show would seem to be easy. First, put at the helm one of our finest directors, Rachel Rockwell; second, have one the most capable of casts assembled in recent memory and third; as a product, have one the funniest, most poignant musicals penned in the last two decades and what should evolve as the end result would be a feast for the musical theatre buff young and old.
With such a formula in place for Marriott's much anticipated staging of the 2005 Tony winning 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a much proved theatrical irony can be viewed; never rest on a show's humor and sacrifice the truth of a script. That seems to be exactly what has happened in Lincolnshire. A musical that has embedded many intimate moments and so many relatable characters has been reduced to a guffaw fest that is played for laughs rather than reality, and in that trap, no show can work, especially one as intricate as Spelling Bee.
Spelling Bee was initially conceived as a play called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E penned by Rebecca Feldman. It got an Off-Broadway musical makeover with William Finn providing the music and lyrics and a revised book by Rachel Sheinkin. After a sell out run, it transferred to Broadway and became the winner of two 2005 Tony Awards (Best Book of a Musical & Best Featured Actor), which was no small task when up against Spamalot.
Bee tells the story of six pre-pubescent middle school students, as well as three members picked from the audience, spelling their way to the championship. At stake are a $200.00 savings bond and a trophy will be treasured for generations. However, the heart of this musical is the back story of each of the contestants and what drives them to compete and win. From the mucous challenged William Barfee (Eric Roediger) and his magic foot to Marcy Park (Katie Boren) and her gift of excelling at everything she attempts, there is a relatability to each character that can instantly take an audience member back to their high school days and conjure up the angst of emotions that go with being a puberty ridden teen.
Both the original Broadway and Drury Lane Water Tower productions allowed the characters to form organically and the resulting humor was derived from each of their own unique personalities. Whether it was intentional on the Director's part or whether it is not understanding the piece as a whole, the intimate back story moments that give shape to the characters and make the audience care about what happens to them throughout the elimination process are barely noticeable and almost thrown away. Yes, the particular relevant scenes are still in the show, but they are almost there as an afterthought, inserted with no sense of importance to how essential they are to the show's overall structure. This is especially true of Logainne Schwartzandgrubenieer's flashbacks with her two dads who have different views on how to raise an adopted daughter and Olive's memories of her parents, each trying their best to raise a daughter in-absensia. In both these scenes, the quietness of the moment is lost on trying to get to the next punch line and in doing so, sacrifices the emotional impact when the characters have to leave the Bee. The result is that the characters become caricatures played merely for the next big laugh.
Ms. Rockwell's casting is certainly impeccable. Mr. Roediger (Barfee) and Derrick Trumbly (Leaf Coneybear) reprise their Drury Lane performances and still prove to be better then their Broadway counterparts. Mr. Trumbly and Mr. Roediger recapture that connection with the audience they had at Drury Lane as ‘Magic Foot' and ‘I'm Not That Smart' remain the two best numbers in the show. Heidi Kettenring, who proves again she is one of the best talents in musical theatre, is magical as Olive and has great chemistry with Mr. Roediger. Katie Boren is a perky Marcy Park, however, her solo, ‘I Speak Six Languages' is totally upstaged by overeager backup singers, which seems to happen to several other characters throughout the show.
This is also one of the few times in fifteen years of seeing shows at the Marriott that the ‘in the round' setting is a detriment to the intimacy of the show. Instead of the stillness of having a speller at the microphone and letting the character come through with little gestures and quirks, the actors are forced to make overbroad blocking moves that detract greatly from the shaping of their individual qualities. In addition, inserting a 15 minute intermission when there should be none (and for which the creators have commented that any insertion would go against the rhythm of the show) bores itself out here as the entire pacing of the show is thrown off its tracks.
If this your first time seeing Spelling Bee, you are no doubt in for a laugh filled evening, but you will also not be getting the full emotional impact of what this well written, compact show has to offer. For that, memories of Drury Lane will have to resonate in our heads until another, more truthful mounting is staged.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through July 19, 2009 at the Marriott Theatre In Lincolnshire. For show times and tickets, please visit www.MarriottTheatre.com or call the box office at 847.634.0200