Casting a Spell

James Lapine directs a terrific cast playing youth beginning the high school of life

Rocker and satirist Frank Zappa once quipped, “the older you get, the more you realize that life is exactly like high school.”

That statement has never seemed more accurate or insightful than when watching the smart, moving and thoroughly delightful new musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

I was, in a word, spellbound.

For many, time tends to soften the harshness of adolescence. We forget or minimize the pressures, the hormonal surges, the daily indignities, the competitions and the very real feeling that “I might die!” over anything from being snubbed by a crush to failing to live up to parents’ expectations.

Experience in the harsher world of adulthood alters our perspective. “It wasn’t that bad,” we conclude about our youthful traumas. But it was. It was also that good. For while we explain away the intensity of our teenage angst, we also forget how the world then seemed to vibrate at a heightened speed For every bruise, we found a small triumph that put us back on top of the world. We may never again know the persistent intensity of experiencing life that characterized those high school years. It was that sense of being fully alive that leads us to romanticize our teenage years—and later forget them.

“Spelling Bee” is a poignant reminder of that time in our lives that sparkles with energy and compassion, exuding a warmth and honesty that allows us both to forge an emotional connection with the characters and remember what it felt like when we believed with all our souls that our lives hinged on the outcome of a spelling bee. Rachel Sheinkin’s book brings together a cast of characters who, while representing stereotypes—the weird home-schooled kids, the overachieving Asian, the arrogantly bluffing, and perpetually nasal, prep school kid, the parent pleaser (a daughter of gay parents no less), the Eagle Scout held captive by new sexual feelings—are richly individual. The real brilliance of Sheinkin’s book is that in presenting real characters in the context of stereotype, it challenges all of us to look behind the dismissive categorization that too often is how adults treat teens—and one another for that matter.

The story is simply a spelling bee. The metaphor is how each of us approaches life through our experience and can only grow when that experience is challenged or when we claim our own lives. Through the elimination process, we get to know each of the characters and their lives, and fall in love with these kids. With a wonderful gymnasium setting by Beowulf Boritt, the audience becomes the audience for the bee, which only heightens the sense of connection to the story.

The music lyrics are classic William Finn, and like his previous work, are richly integrated into the script. Finn has always used his music as a dramatic device, and he does so again here. Jaunty melody is not always a given so when it emerges, as in the wonderful “Magic Feet,” in which the much mispronounced William Barfee––that’s Bar-Fay, thank you––explains his technique for spelling success, the exuberance is palpable. Each character has a winning scheme, and they’re all brilliant.

The company is extraordinary. Under James Lapine’s direction, each actor has found the heart and the truth of his or her character. You do not think these are adults playing teens; rather you believe wholeheartedly in each of them as people wrestling with their identities and longings even as all the rules are changing and they are not in control. Jesse Tyler Ferguson gives one of his best performances to date as Leaf Coneybear, the home-schooled kid who makes his own idiosyncratic clothes and can’t quite figure out how he got to the bee. Dan Fogler is astonishing as William Barfee, one of the best performances of the season in any musical. José Llana as the hormonally inflamed Chip Tolentino is equally good, and Sarah Saltzberg as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre––the name a synthesis of those of her two gay dads––is borderline neurotic, in a splendid way. The other young people, played by Deborah S. Craig and Celia Keenan Bolger are both exceptional. Jay Reiss as Vice Principal Planch is hysterical, and Lisa Howard as a former bee queen is great.

This is a phenomenal show, and proves once again that even among contrived and excessively produced musicals, the journey of the human heart is the most compelling way of all—and the reason that “Bee” is m-a-g-n-i-f-i-c-e-n-t.

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