Theatre Aspen’s ‘Spelling Bee’ gets an ‘A’, and a buzz
July 16, 2009
ASPEN – With its current production of the “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Theatre Aspen takes another giant step toward the organization’s goal: to move theater closer to the realm that music occupies in Aspen. Paige Price arrived as Theatre Aspen’s artistic director two years ago with a pledge to bring true buzz to the productions, and “Spelling Bee,” William Finn’s musical comedy about misfit kids, does the trick.
Since seeing the show last week, I have found myself asking everyone, “Hey, have you seen that show at Theatre Aspen?” And the responses have fallen into two categories: “Yeah, wasn’t that awesome?” or “I heard it was awesome.” The buzz is there, and now I’m going to add to it.
I can’t say I came to “Spelling Bee” overflowing with excitement – not like my personal overflow for last year’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” which I had seen on screen, Off-Broadway, and at the Basalt Middle School (technically, Way the Hell Off-Broadway). “Spelling Bee” debuted, on Broadway, just four years ago, and the Aspen production marks the regional premiere.
The story line – a bunch of nerdy kids competing in a spelling bee – didn’t sound like much (especially compared to the story of a nerdy guy who raises a man-eating plant bent on world domination, set to a doo-wop score). It sounded potentially juvenile and cliched – though I was intrigued by the fact that Rachel Sheinkin had won a Best Book Tony Award for “Spelling Bee.”
“Spelling Bee” is not about the story; it is about everything else: the characters, the music, the energy, the jokes. And in Theatre Aspen’s version, the performance by the stellar ensemble cast. Yes, the characters are cliches – right down to the perfectionist Asian girl. But they are cliches fleshed out, and given a fresh world in which to release their anxieties.
The plot may be simple – yep, some kids spelling words – but the production is anything but. The creators of the show think way outside of the box to create something like an alternate universe inside the theater, with flashbacks, slow-motion and fast forward sequences, improvised bits, and moments where individual characters are isolated onstage.
In Theatre Aspen’s production, director Mark Martino plays up to the hilt the idea of making the theater space a world of its own: the show features references (aka shameless, but theatrically effective, plugs) for local businesses, and volunteer spellers from the audience, who actually get to show off their stage skills.
Standing out from the all-around solid cast are Jonathan Kay as the insufferable über-dork William Barfee; Snowmass Villager Beth Malone as the lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre; and Jamison Stern as the snarky, impatient vice-principal who conducts the spelling bee, and gets more than his share of the best lines. (Using ‘atheist’ in a sentence: “Because she was an atheist, Susie was not bothered by the other kids yelling, ‘Go to hell, Susie, go to hell.”)
Beneath the maniacally high tempo, “Spelling Bee” has a point to make about our society: namely, that when there are misfit kids, there are always parents who misfit them. But the musical is smart and sharp enough to realize it’s best to let this commentary float just below the surface, with the humor and manically fast tempo carrying the production.