Fully titled “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the Barrington Stage Company’s current musical production, is one of the most original and engaging pieces I have seen this season. The book by Rachel Sheinkin is quirky and the humor often unexpected. If the music by William Finn is not memorable, it is impressively performed by an estimable cast. There is no song list in the program; so I cannot offer titles, but there seems to be a number titled “Erection” sung by one of the cast members. Let me explain.
The show chronicles a countywide spelling bee involving fourth- to sixth-graders. While they are spelling improbable words such as “phylactery” they are offering glimpses into their uniformly unhappy lives. The adult actors — all Equity — commit themselves full out to playing 12-year-old kids, and they do it well. The song in question is sung by Miguel Cervantes playing Chip Tolentino, a Boy Scout who sees a girl in the audience, finds her attractive, and flubs his opportunity to spell a word correctly because of a bodily function over which he has no control.
The nine-member cast is talented. They effectively animate the special circumstances of the lives of each of the children in this lively text. One girl, Logainne (Hannah Delmonte), has “two daddies” and is head of the “gay and lesbian club” at her elementary school. Another, Olive Ostrovsky (Molly Ephraim), has a “mommy” who is on a spiritual journey at an ashram in India. There is a boy, Leaf Coneybear (Clifton Guterman), whose hippie family encourages him to make his own clothes and wear Birkenstocks and a colorful toe-sock on one foot.
Thrown into the mix are four audience members who are gleaned I suspect from regulars at the Barrington productions, and the cast has a good time with that. Mr. Noonan, a fiftysomething regular guy in a polo shirt, is said to be the only fourth-grader who has turned prematurely gray. It is also said that he enjoys intimidating his competition at the yearly spelling bees by dressing like their fathers.
The show is warmhearted fun and a crowd-pleaser to be sure.
Eric Peterson plays William Barfee (pronounced “Barfay”). He is a joy as the boy whose “fake mommy” thinks he’s a loser but whose “real mommy” thinks he will grow up to be incredibly handsome. Demond Green, playing Mitch who is doing community service offers juice boxes and hugs to the losers. He wants to “beat them up” for overstating the importance of their loss, but he knows it would violate his parole.
Sally Wilfert, as Rona Lisa Peretti, engages nimbly with the audience members as the host and one-time winner of the bee. Michael Mastro hilariously underplays the “word pronouncer,” Douglas Panch. Marcy Park (Emy Baysic), a 12-year-old type A, effectively reminds us what being a “loser” really means.