Spelling is a mere convention which school systems use to bludgeon us into compliance. The spelling bee is a tribal rite, and unfair, at that, since American English is spelled differently than British English, which is spelled differently than Canadian or Australian English. Moreover, even within these subgroups there is dissensus; you may have noticed that The New Yorker now spells focused with two “s”s, and the minority regional spelling of potato with an “e” on the end is not universal, as former Vice President Dan Quayle discovered to his sorrow twenty years ago. So do not be smug, ye Bee champions; you have shown not intellectual astuteness but merely a craven desire to pay heed to conventional beliefs.
All right! All right! So I lost the audience-participation part of Workhouse Theatre’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, where they called four of us civilians on stage to compete with their attractive and agile actors, whose script, unlike ours, actually includes the correct spelling of the words they are called upon to spell! I nailed my first word (“cow”) but missed my second (some word that probably doesn’t even exist). I was sent out into the darkness, where there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, by the Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney (Anthony Williams), who gave me a smile and a box of grape juice.
But I stand by my point. Spelling is mere convention, and is emblematic of an educational system which rewards students who regurgitate received wisdom, rather than think independently or critically. We are seeing this production on the grounds of the former Lorton Reformatory, which reinforces the point. Of course, most of the prisoners were simply bad guys, but we also saw a plaque commemorating the imprisonment of suffragettes, who were locked up because they demonstrated in favor of a woman’s right to vote.
Most kids are by nature insecure and eager to please their elders, and none more so than our Spelling Bee contestants. Logainne Schwartzandgrubinerre (Melanie Kurstin, stepping in for Shannon Kingett) who in justice deserves a first-round pass just for spelling her own name, fiercely defends her unconventional upbringing (she wears a button which says “I (heart) my two dads”). But it is apparent that they love her back only to the extent that she is a success.
Or consider Marcy Park (Anna Jackson), who is so driven to succeed in everything that she permits herself only three hours of sleep each night. Or Olive Ostrovsky (Amie Cazel), a charming, inventive child (she notices that transposing the first two vowels in her name spells “I love”) who imagines that her mother (away at an Ashram) and father (who cannot even show up with the entrance fee) actually love her. Or Leaf Coneybear (Eben Kuhns), whose devil-may-care attitude disguises that his family has already given up on him.
Even those without obvious family trauma – defending champion Chip Tolentino (Harrison G. Lee), who is ultimately undone by Mr. Stiffy, and William Barfée (Ben Gibson; I won’t tell you what happens to him) are under assault from their own insecurities. Chip is full of simmering resentments underneath his eager-to-please manner, and William, who has multiple allergies, resembles the Peanuts character Pig-Pen, if Pig-Pen had an IQ of 160.
Three adults preside over this cauldron of need and anxiety – the aforementioned Mahoney, who is working off his community service, Rona Lisa Perretti (Mary Payne), a slick, self-promoting real estate agent who runs the show, and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Jeffrey Davis), whose mild-mannered exterior hides a raging lunatic beneath. (Jesus Christ (Lee) also makes a cameo appearance, to add perspective.) Once the party is assembled, the play essentially becomes a spelling bee, interspersed with musical numbers in which each contestant describes his or her idiosyncratic life.
I must tell you this is the saddest musical I have ever seen. In Sweeney Todd, the protagonist has been betrayed by society and responds by applying his razor like the bow of a violin across the throats of its various citizens, but at least their suffering comes to a quick end. Here, we see the children of Spelling Bee in the middle of an ocean of misery which will last many years.
Not all of the musical numbers are particularly interesting, but the best of them – particularly “The I Love You Song”, where Olive imagines that her self-absorbed parents actually care for her while she tries to spell “chimera” – can break your heart.
The problem of children being ignored by parents who are drunk with self-love may not be a new one, but it is present with us today. “[M]any…parents ha[ve] resorted to prescription drugs as a way of solving the problem rather than spending more time with them,” Columbinus playwright PJ Paparelli says in this interview, and it would be easy to imagine any of these children getting such a dismissive treatment from their parents. Spelling Bee, in short, is a musical I would go to if I was feeling too good and needed to bring myself back to earth.
The Workhouse Theatre production is considerably cheerier than the musical itself. Director Joseph Wallen expertly captures the manic, disorganized energy of the pre-teener, and the actors scramble around with the loose-limbed, sweaty exuberance of those who have just been slapped in the face by pubescence.
And what excellent pipes! All of the actors have beautiful voices, especially Cazel, Payne, and Gibson, and they reach extraordinarily sharp harmonies in such songs such as “Pandemonium”, those sung-off “Goodbyes” and the finale. (Merissa Driscoll is the Music Director.) The acting is uniformly spot-on, and I am particularly impressed with Kuhns, who is convincing both as Leaf and as Leaf’s polar opposite, Logainne’s anal parent, who drills her remorselessly while her other dad (Williams) pleads for relief. Kurstin, the understudy, is superb as the lisping Logainne; I can only imagine how swell Kingett must be in the role. The production elements are also first-rate – not show-offy, but fully integrated into the production concept. I am thinking in particular of the costumes (Kristen Jepperson, herself an excellent musical theater performer) and even more particularly of Vice-Principal Panch’s hideous orange sports coat. That coat, and the self-pleased insouciance with which Davis wears it, tells us three-quarters of what we need to know about the character.
Workhouse is a new company, and it appears to be a very good one. Occupying a space which was once part of a prisoner’s dormitory, this season’s main stage shows are in W-3, what eventually will be dedicated space for its children’s theatre shows. (Spelling Bee shares stage time with Sinbad, at present.) In its first season (four main stage and six children’s theatre productions,) it has been able to draw professionals from Washington’s enormous pool of excellent non-Equity talent, and also from Richmond, which is about an hour away.
Workhouse Theatre is part of the sizeable Workhouse Arts Center which has taken over much of the old Lorton prison – an interesting and pleasing variation on the promise to beat weapons into plowshares. I have reservations about the musical itself, but you may not – after all, it won two Tony Awards, including best book for Rebecca Sheinkin, and was nominated for four more – in which case, you ought to see this fun and savvy production.
Travel tips: For those of you who haven’t yet been to this Fairfax County facility, it took us about an hour to get there from Southern Maryland; it may take you less, if you do not go during rush hour. You’ll find numerous galleries, classes and a museum there. The arts complex is about five minutes from the charming town of Occoquan, VA on the banks of the Occoquan River, where you can get an enormous seafood meal at a reasonable price.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Music and lyrics by William Finn
Based on the original improvisational play C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E by Rebecca Feldman
Directed by Joseph Wellen
Produced by Workhouse Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, including one intermission
David Siegel . Connection.com