During the 2010-2011 season, the formerDupont Circle church that Keegan Theatre calls home has been reconfigured as a Brooklyn apartment, two Irish bars, and a boxing ring. Each set worked, within reason, but serving as a dilapidated middle school gymnasium may suit the former sacred space best of all.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a Broadway musical that works well on the small scale if, on any given night, three factors align: 1) A committed ensemble gives a gusty performance; 2) good sports from the audience volunteer in advance to relive middle school trauma; and 3) pretty much everyone is as into the show as the people onstage.
The night I attended Keegan scored two out of three. The volunteer spellers included Fox 5 weather siren Sue Palka, a good sport sporting a silk tunic and jeggings. But the audience? About a third were exchange students from Hong Kong who just didn’t seem to get it, especially that fourth wall–breaking ballad about erections.
Oh well. I was the disruptive woman guffawing in the fifth row. Spelling Bee is a great show for native English speakers who love comedy, musicals, or musical comedy. It was created by an improv troupe, and gradually moved up the venue ranks from Barrington Stage to off-Broadway to Broadway, taking home multiple Tonys in 2005. The premise is simple: Six middle school misfits (all played by adults) gather to compete in the county bee. Three grown-ups are on hand to supervise: a local real estate agent, played with small-town panache by Katie McManus; the Prozac-popping vice principal/pronouncer (a deadpan Dan Van Why); and Mitch Mahoney (welcome D.C. newcomer RaMond Thomas), a parolee who’s on hand to pass out apple juice.
Shortly after the catchy, eponymous opening number, four volunteers take seats on the bleachers. It is not unfair to say that the funniest moments come early in the show, when the host and pronouncer send up spelling-bee protocols with a mix of improv, scripted text, and current-event gags. Each speller is introduced by McManus, and once the word is announced, Van Why, if prompted, provides word origin or uses the word in a sentence. For example: “Billy, put down those phylacteries, we’re Episcopalian!”
McManus’s intros for Palka included “In high school, Ms. Palka was voted to have a 40 percent chance of being sexy” and “Ms. Palka was sent to detention for wearing that outfit.” The well-dressed forecaster successfully spelled cloud, caterjune, hoarfrost, and heterosphere before getting knocked out of the competition by a 10-syllable acid that may or may not have been an actual word.
The show slows a bit once it’s just the pros left onstage. Keegan made some odd lighting-design choices, too often relying on wobbly spotlights, and the five-piece offstage orchestra sounds a bit muffled. But the cast never comes off as low budget. As the hormone-addled boys, Chris Mueller, Michael Innocenti, and Dan Sonntag stay in character but never go off key. The vocal performances are terrific, though it’s troubling that Keegan either didn’t find, or didn’t look for, an Asian actress to play the Korean-American character.
As someone who saw the musical off-Broadway way back when, I worried that Spelling Bee would be inherently less funny post-Glee. Why go to the theater now that teenage misfits burst into song on TV? Because Spelling Bee appeals to that same Gnostic desire: By all means, let’s relive mortifying adolescent moments, but please make it entertaining the second time around.