The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical so entertaining that I wish I had fewer qualms about it. Unfortunately, there’s no way to dodge the qualms; they come with the territory. One sort of qualm is substantive: Set at the bee itself, with occasional flashbacks to scenes in the contestants’ home lives, the show deals with adolescence, intelligence, and the angst that accompanies any kind of competition, raising a flurry of questions about how Americans raise and educate children, particularly gifted children, and about what this society views as the goals of education. But as you watch songwriter William Finn and book writer Rachel Sheinkin’s treatment of this matter, a new range of qualms arises, about how to depict adolescents onstage; about what constitutes musical entertainment; about what purpose, if any, lies behind the show as a whole other than simple diversion.
A spelling bee, after all, is only dramatic if you have a vested interest in it: You want one of the kids to win, or you would very much like to see one not win. Beyond that, it’s purely a matter of handicapping, trying to gauge which bright child will stress out, or become overconfident, or will panic when confronted with a really outré word. Finn and Sheinkin are too gracious to construct a facile melodrama in which one child is the audience favorite, but what they do instead is problematic. All the contestants are presented as stock weirdos of various kinds—overbright, overachieving, troubled souls, some under heavy pressure from demanding parents and others demeaned or neglected at home. The two teachers in charge of the match, one a former county winner, are presented as pretty odd cases too.
Granted, this is the final round before the all-state competition, the kids are all spelling champs already, and one doesn’t expect to see average adolescents among them, particularly not in our anti-bookish time. But Finn and Sheinkin go on to complicate the problem of emotional focus they’ve set themselves. Each contestant is not only a psychological basket case of one sort or another, each is also a grotesque cartoon; they are supplied with absurd names, eccentric habits, family backgrounds, and personal achievements that resemble those of today’s youth only in the way The Flintstones resembles suburban actuality. Given their high-anxiety psychological states, what results is a kind of aesthetic schizophrenia, in which you never know from one minute to the next whether you’re being invited to empathize with the kids or mock them as deranged goofballs.
The more Ionesco-loony Sheinkin’s one-liners get—and some of them go way, way beyond the bounds of probability—the more irritating it becomes to be asked to respond to the hortatory pleading embedded in Finn’s songs. I had never realized the extent to which his numbers resemble adolescent pleas for attention; in this show he has in a sense found his optimal subject. As one desperate confession follows another, with little individuality given to the various characters’ demonstrativeness, you begin to feel as if you’ve been asked to pay for the privilege of hearing someone’s psychoanalysis. Finn is a songwriter of great accomplishment, and within the limited range set for him here, he gets what variety he can, but every number tends to come down to the same kind of emotional declamation.
Among the devices they employ to vary the texture is audience participation: People who’ve volunteered in advance are called onstage at the start to represent additional contestants, and are purposely given easy words (out of the objections to which Sheinkin’s script gets some of its better laughs) until it’s time to get rid of them, at which point the authors will even stoop to low tricks like definition-less words. The notion’s ingeniously handled, with a good deal less victimization than is usually practiced on members of the public in these interactive affairs; the trouble is that it underscores the show’s bipolar nature, by heightening the serious tension (what if one of the volunteers actually spells well enough to win?) and simultaneously reducing the evening to even more of a joke (the “fun facts” introduced between rounds about the volunteer contestants are made particularly ludicrous).
Paradoxically, the contradictions inherent in Putnam County Spelling Bee don’t dim its moment-to-moment pleasure. Though the show isn’t really about anything and has no dramatic momentum, James Lapine’s production takes you through it appealingly and zestfully, somehow even evolving a style among the authors’ contradictions. He’s much helped by Beowulf Boritt’s set, a spare but atmospheric quintessence of a multipurpose high school auditorium. Jay Reiss is particularly funny as the more wound-up of the two faculty members in charge, and the adult actors who play the competing students all succeed wonderfully, through the simple device of doing everything with innocent sincerity and never pretending to be kiddish. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Deborah S. Craig make particularly striking portraits. Most of the daily press’s attention, inevitably, has gone to Dan Fogler, who plays the inevitable comic fat boy, on whom the authors have loaded a sinus condition, allergies, particularly weird habits, and a readily mispronounceable name, as if desperate to make sure there’d be something funny about him. Fogler is a terrifically skillful performer, and gets all his laughs immaculately on cue; I just kept wishing that he’d been asked to do something a little less predictable, to suggest that he went to a school a little more three-dimensional than South Park.