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I am exactly the sort of nerd who knows how to spell Weltanschauung—German art songs are kinda my thing—so The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, at Ford’s Theater right now, is kinda my show.
The setup: Well, it’s right there in the title. It’s a spelling bee, starring a gaggle of oddball kids and a handful of audience members selected right before the show. There’s a cheery host (a former winner), an official pronouncer (who may be a sex offender), and a “comfort counselor” who hands out juice boxes and reluctant hugs to the bee participants as they get eliminated. (He’s played by Kevin McAllister, the huge-voiced romantic lead from Ford’s Violet not long ago, who is criminally underused here.)
The execution? Less efficient than the Bee deserves. This is a show, after all, with songs by William Finn, the guy who gave us A New Brain and Falsettos, and the material here is witty and observant. You’ve got your horny Boy Scout (Vincent Kempski, who was Tulsa in Signature’s very fine Gypsy a few months ago), your nerdy Asian girl (here, she’s black, played with verve by the acrobatic Felicia Curry, who is almost always awesome), your awkward kid with a peanut allergy who may just take the whole thing home.
But in Peter Flynn’s production, too much is on the nose, overloud, thrown at the audience. Spelling Bee is the show that made Jesse Tyler Ferguson (of Modern Family) something of a sensation, but as energetic as Nickolas Vaughan is in the part of Leaf Coneybear, the charm of the character doesn’t translate. And when your central storyline involves a girl with two absent, self-involved parents—and I lose interest midway through the dream ballet in which she imagines them expressing their love for her—well, something’s off.
Props to Rachel Zampelli, though, for her dreamy soprano—she plays that distant mom, and also the host of the bee, who once won it by spelling syzygy. She’s terrific throughout, centered and charismatic, and she’s got a hell of a future ahead of her, if I’m any sort of Spelling Bee judge.