Capybara. Weltanschauung. Vug. Obscure words to daunt the spirits of the boldest middle school kids, and all words tossed at them during The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This 2005 musical, based on an improvisational play by Rebecca Feldman, features music and lyrics by William Finn (“Falsettoland”) and an award-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin.
Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse enjoys a uniformly strong cast in its current production, directed and choreographed by Jerry Jay Cranford. Ithaca College theater alums Bruce Warren and Joanna Krupnick shine as precocious children, but so do the four other competitors and the three amusing adults who monitor the bee.
Hosting the event is Rona Lisa Peretti, a local realtor who proudly remembers having taken the third annual bee with “syzygy.” Lorinne Lampert is superb in this role, keeping the competition real and not satiric. Attractive and beautifully voiced, she adds both elegance and kindness to the proceedings.
Her assistant, Vice Principal Panch, returning to the bee after his “anger management” classes, is a more unabashedly comic figure. His job is to offer word definitions and provide sentences illustrating them, and what Greg Carter does with this part is hilarious.
The third adult is the curious role of the official comforter, one Mitch Mahoney, who’s on parole and, as his community service, offers juice and solace to the stunned eliminated spellers. Rudolph Searles III plays him with dreads and a homey stance, though he’s more interesting as one of Logainne’s gay dads.
Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere is bright, politically aware, earnest, and pushed to achieve by her two fathers, one of whom has no trouble cheating to increase her chances. Joanna Krupnick delivers her perfectly, lisp and all, with engaging internal conflict.
In fact, what finally makes this show charming is not just the comic lines or the cuteness of young adult actors behaving as kids – it’s watching each of the six spellers wrestle with the demands of the adult world (particularly their parents, who are all disappointing in different ways) and struggle toward self-affirmation.
Geoffrey Kidwell as Chip, a Boy Scout and last year’s confident champ, finds coping with puberty more challenging than orthography. As national competitor Marcy Park, petite and smug, Lisa Helmi Johanson has a most satisfying epiphany when she realizes she can choose not to win.
On the other end of the spectrum, Leaf Coneybear, the much-maligned sibling in a large family of hippies, discovers he’s quite possibly smarter than he ever thought. A tousled Scott Guthrie plays him with confused grace and absolutely irresistible amiability.
Which brings us to the two finalists. Olive Ostrovsky is a timid girl whose father’s always working and whose mother has abandoned her to live on an Indian ashram. Slight and slumped as if perpetually cowed, Brittany Kiernan brilliantly portrays the tiny-voiced Olive, whose only companion seems to be her dictionary.
Yet she manages to befriend the largest, loudest, most abrasive kid in the competition, William Barfée (not “barfy,” he repeatedly insists). Obnoxiously bright and always an outsider, William finds his defenses chipped away by mild little Olive. (We can safely say they both emerge as winners.)
Bruce Warren, in his 13th MGR show, has voluntarily squeezed himself into the most unflattering clothes (not to mention his rumpled hair) to present William as the uncomfortable, allergic, fastidious, scornful and sad young boy he is. He brings down the house with “Magic Foot,” a song boasting his winning technique (William writes out words on the floor with his foot before spelling them).
A bonus of this entertaining show is that some audience members are selected to participate in the bee alongside the actors, and opening night featured ones who were game to join in, even to a celebratory conga line. Actually, one woman spelled so well she proved hard to eliminate.
Spelling Bee may not be a rich enough musical to survive several viewings, but if you haven’t yet seen it, this production is completely rewarding.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, through September 29. Music and lyrics by William Finn; book by Rachel Sheinkin. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Jay Cranford; musical direction by Corinne Aquilina. Set by Allen Wright Shannon; lighting by Bob Frame; costumes by Tiffany Howard. With Lorinne Lampert, Bruce Warren, and ensemble.