“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” premiered in 2005. But the version that I saw last week — presented by The George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, in a run that ends on April 9 — included references to George Santos, hysteria over drag queens, and the Silicon Valley Bank collapse.
Book writer Rachel Sheinkin, along with Jay Weiss (who is credited with “additional material”), have clearly given this musical room to evolve, and also to be different each night: Volunteers from the audience play a substantial role in the first of the musical’s two acts, taking part in the titular spelling bee along with the musical’s six main characters.
So each incarnation of this musical is different. Yet the reason it has endured so long and remained so popular — with frequent productions all over the place, and Disney reportedly developing a film version — is that it touches on universal themes, with its teen misfits dealing with their insecurities and taking steps, both small and large, toward more enlightened adulthoods.
It is uplifting but not saccharine, with touches of both irreverence and wholesomeness. The songs, by William Finn, may not qualify as musical-theater classics, but they’re clever and catchy enough to be engaging. George Street artistic director David Saint writes in the program that this is a “newly imagined” production. That may be going too far, but certainly, under the direction of Colin Hanlon — who co-directed George Street’s excellent production of Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only a Play” in 2021 — this “Bee” has a fresh feel and a lot of boisterous energy.
The scenic design, by Jason Simms, manages to make the middle school cafeteria/auditorium in which the bee takes place (with the musical’s five musicians visible on a back stage) colorful and cluttered but also sadly institutional, all at once. Choreographer Nancy Renee Braun helps the “Pandemonium” number live up to its title. Costume designer Lisa Zinni gives each contestant a completely different look, with bright tones and varied patterns that add to the production’s lively feel.
Even the bee’s frequently dour “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (played by Aaron Michael Ray) — an ex-con who escorts each loser out of the cafetorium and hands them a juice box, in order to fulfill his community service obligation — wears bright blue.
The six contestants are:
• Marcy Park (Sumi Yu). Feels intense pressure to be an overachiever, skipped two grades in grammar school. All business.
• Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Angel Lin). Earnestly devoted to social and political causes, speaks with an extreme lisp.
• Chip Tolentino (Coleman Cummings). Last year’s bee winner, involved in sports, seemingly more normal than the rest but — in the musical’s edgiest song, “Chip’s Lament” — embarrassed by an erection that won’t go away.
• William Barfée (Jordan Matthew Brown). Nerdy, eccentric and dealing with various health issues, but very confident in his spelling abilities. In an overdone running gag, he is endlessly annoyed by the mispronunciation of his last name.
• Leaf Coneybear (Sammy Pignalosa). Goofy, gangly and doubts he has a chance in the bee because he feels he’s not smart enough.
• Olive Ostrovsky (Lila Coogan). Shy and unassuming. Has a difficult home life, with parents who don’t give her the love and support she needs: Her second-act “The I Love You Song” serves as the show’s emotional climax. Doesn’t have enough money to pay the entrance fee but is allowed to compete anyway.
Rounding out the cast are bee moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (Ally Bonino), a realtor who still cherishes the moment when she spelled “syzygy” correctly in the third annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which she won; and bee judge Douglas Panch (Kilty Reidy), a sardonically humorous, eye-rolling vice principal.
Bonino, Reidy and some of the other actors also play the contestants’ parents, in flashbacks. And they show great skill in smoothly integrating, into the onstage action, the audience members who end up being spelling bee contestants.
We’re accustomed — in film and literature, in addition to theater — to sports being used as a metaphor for life. Can a spelling bee function in the same way?
Why not? As the contestants sing in the song “Pandemonium,” “Life is random and unfair” — sometimes you get easy words to spell, and sometimes they’re hard — and “the best spellers don’t necessarily win.” As long as there are kids who feel they don’t belong, or aren’t good enough, or just can’t get a break, audiences will relate to “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
The George Street Playhouse presents “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through April 9. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
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