By Connie Shakalis H-T Reviewer
Ever intrigued by death, I was 7 when I asked my mother if everyone wins Scrabble in heaven. “No,” she said. “If you knew you were going to win, the fun would disappear.”
That’s what happened Saturday night at Indiana University Summer Theatre’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Competitive speller Marcy Park (Nina Donville), an ultra-achieving, multi-talented adolescent, has grown so accustomed to winning at everything, that she finally loses the bee on purpose, to free herself of the pressure. Like an overheated tire that has picked up a nail, she deflates, and for the first time in her Jesus- and parents-pleasing life, enjoys happiness. Marcy gets perhaps the wittiest number in the show, “I Speak Six Languages,” which seems to describe some of today’s over-scheduled kids.
The play, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, is about all those smart but weird kids we knew, or were. It’s really about all who hope, try, win and lose, but Sheinkin cleverly selects this subset of the population, to good effect.
I’ve seen productions of “Spelling Bee” that consisted of adults trying to remember what puberty was like, either nasally screeching lines or gyrating like Jim Carrey after three double espressos. This production, however, directed and choreographed by Richard Roland, seemed real enough to make me believe these young adults were 11-ish.
Musical director Hana J. Cai could have softened the volume in “The I Love You Song.” I would have been moved more had the good — and strong! — singing varied in that respect, but her direction of “Pandemonium” (”That’s the reason we despair. Life is Pandemonium”) was excellent. Just as in a spelling bee, some performers Saturday were better than others, and this is a mix of good singers and good dancers, with their respective strengths. But boy do they sound good singing together. Cai highlighted not just the best soloists but the clever score’s harmonies. What “The I Love You Song” lacked in nuance, the rest of the numbers made up for.
Maybe surprising to some, because of its title, this is not for young children. It’s a wordsmith’s piece full of double entendres and sophisticated one-liners. Olive (Katie Swaney) — she went as roadkill for Halloween — in one of her literary musings, notes that “if you take the ‘w’ from answer, the ‘h’ from ghost, the extra ‘a’ from aardvark and the ‘t’ from listen, you’d have the word ‘what.’” And you could say it all day, and no one would hear you.
Part of “Pandemonium’s” — and other songs’ — verve was the talent of one of the night’s stars, Sean Blake. Comic timing, pathos, authenticity, singing voice: he’s got them. The other star is Marya Grandy as spelling bee past winner and current bee facilitator, Rona; she also plays Olive’s mother. Grandy’s stage presence and singing stood out, which is saying something in this deep sea of IU talent. Nearly as good as Blake and Grandy was Matthew Weidenbener as William Barfee (”Bar-FAY!”). His trick for spelling is his magic foot, which he projects and projects. He writes the spelling words on the floor with it, so he can “see” them. Weidenbener is a comic dancing, singing delight, and this challenging role, with its clogged sinuses and flowing arrogance, suits him.
Cole Winston is Chip, the Boy Scout and athlete who must suddenly compete not only with the other smarties but with his own emerging puberty. Winston, exuding a certain genuineness, is endearing in every role I’ve seen him play. Justin Smusz’ Coneybear, the kid whose family is smarter than he and reminds him of it, is entertaining as the competitor with ADHD. Vice principal Panch — the action takes place in a New York state middle school — (Jay C. Hemphill) snags a wonderful moment, where he breaks down ranting that he’s long been passed over for principal. Hemphill is hysterical in this surprise vignette. Casey McCoy made a good daughter of two men, struggling to please them both.
Costumes, designed by Linda Pisano, helped set the youthful, summery mood. A three-piece band sounded more like seven, its accompaniments stirring and intense.
After having seen Friday night’s IU production of “Our Town,” “Spelling Bee” lifted me back out of pensiveness. Whew, I needed that.