Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Life on the bee list

Emy Baysic isn't one to be fazed by the likes of "phylactery.”

I've owed the North Shore Music Theatre a review of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for some time now (this is its final weekend) and so I'm happy to report - at the last minute - that the NSMT has done a fine job with William Finn's latest Tony-winner. Director Jeremy Dobrish and choreographer Dan Knechtges have seamlessly transposed the post-Broadway version (mounted by Barrington Stage Company, which first developed the material) to the NSMT arena stage (one speller guilelessly observes, "I've never been in a gym in the round before!"), while adding a lot more scampering physical kick to several numbers. And the performances are strong all around, with at least three award-contenders among them.

But even though I'd give the production a solid "A," I think I'd only give the musical itself a "Bee +." (And as I was my elementary school's spelling champ, I'm pretty much the show's target audience.) Bee's book, though funny, is always a little thin, and in the second half (when it rather baldly works up more sympathy for the kids) a bit awkward, too. And Finn's score doesn't seem quite up to his usual standard - or perhaps it's that his quirky, rambling melodies are most striking when they lead to surprising, bracing little insights of the kind only neurotic adults can deliver, or appreciate. The kids of Putnam, needless to say, are loaded with "quirks," but rarely say anything truly unexpected (much less disturbing). This is what a friend of mine calls "cute quirk" - the slobby, asthmatic kid with the name that's always mispronounced, the perky Asian whiz who longs for once to fail, they all feel ever so slightly secondhand, like we saw them on some Judd Apatow series a few years ago. Indeed, the movie that set off the spelling bee craze, Spellbound, offered a far more genuinely quirky cast of characters - and even limned the shades of class and ethnicity that shadow the National Bee. Alas, all that has gone missing in Putnam County; instead we get liberal in-jokes about gay parents and the Bush administration (most of which fell flat up in Beverly, where it seems the last Republicans in Massachusetts have a redoubt).

Still, it would be wrong to pretend that within these parameters, the North Shore doesn't deliver a good time. Probably the best material in Rachel Sheinkin's book arrives in the vice principal's replies to the speller's incessant question, "Could you use that word in a sentence?," and Michael Mastro nails each cleverly knowing line with piss-perfect aplomb (I won't spoil them for you by giving any away). He's ably abetted by Sally Wilfert, who smartly channels the sexually repressed averageness of school administrators everywhere. Close on the heels of these star turns (and boasting the best pipes of all three) is the versatile Demond Green, who gives just enough satiric edge to both the bee's "comfort counselor" (a parolee who doles out hugs and juice boxes) and the bitchy gay dad of one of the contestants.

The performances of said spellers themselves (all played by adults) were consistently strong, but perhaps a little pushy. First among equals were Eric Petersen (as the now-iconic "William Bar-FAY") and local hero Miguel Cervantes (whose moment at the mike is undermined by a sudden e-r-e-c-t-i-o-n, at left). There were also engaging turns from Molly Ephraim, Emy Baysic, and Hannah Delmonte; only Clifton Guterman felt insufficiently grounded as future-stoner Leaf Coneybear (he did far better work in his coiled turn as the other gay dad). Together they kept the show's energy up, and the jokes flying; perhaps a little more v-e-r-i-s-i-m-i-l-i-t-u-d-e was too much to ask.

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