Kids are cute sometimes. More often, they're pretty scary—if not because of their limitless energy and emotional range, then for the disturbing reflection of how adults have fucked them up. Even if they aren't all that screwed up, they're trying desperately to show the world (or at least themselves) who they are with little experience to support their identities, which can lead to both hilarious and unnerving results.
Stillpointe Theatre's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a comical mashup of character studies as six children compete for a modest scholarship, academic prestige, their parents' pride (or mere appeasement), and their own sense of self-worth by way of orthography.
Premiering on Broadway in 2005 and conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, the musical casts adult actors as the young spellers, and is geared toward adult audiences. Under the direction of Amanda J. Rife, Stillpointe's actors create some level of illusion through tweenish mannerisms, but they use the obvious gaps between their own ages and those of their young characters to highlight the absurdity of adolescent quirks and neuroses.
As Chip Tolentino, Corey Hennessey is the overconfident, backwards-snapback-wearing punk kid with an anger problem found in most elementary school classrooms. His excessive confidence gained from being Putnam's reigning spelling champion is challenged when, as he sings in a particularly melodramatic number, he experiences the plague of unwanted boners. Naturally, the poor kid gets landed with words like "tittup." Hennessey's role as the title character in last year's "Bat Boy" was maybe half as terrifying as Chip's wrath, burning through his beady eyes.
Dressed in well-coordinated blue shorts, an orange bowtie, and a blazer, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre is the dork-chic president of the Gay/Straight Alliance at his elementary school and the lisp-afflicted son of overbearing gay dads. His stereotyped characterization is cringe-worthy for sure (the musical's original casting has Logianne or "Schwartzy" as a girl, in which case a speech defect might not read as a "gay lisp," but here it's questionable), but actor Darius McKeiver's forged grin—more like a strained grimace—and generally uncomfortable demeanor reveal Schwartzy's deep anxiety, making him one of the most compelling characters.
With his curly red hair springing out from beneath his self-made hoodie with duct-tape dinosaur spikes, Jon Kevin Lazarus plays the most carefree, underachieving, and imaginative contestant, who's just happy to be there at all, and to indulge his ADHD with all the fascinating distractions of a county-wide spelling bee. The youngest in a large family, Leaf Coneybear sings that he is "not that smart"—he placed third in his school's bee, but went on to the county competition only because the winner had to attend his bar mitzvah, and the runner-up had to attend the same bar mitzvah.
Stillpointe's artistic director Ryan Haase (who designed the set and lighting for the show) plays William Barfee ("Bar-FAY," he repeats after each mispronunciation of his name), stricken his entire life with only one clear nostril and blessed with a "magic foot" that he uses to correctly spell out each word onto the floor before speaking his answer. Awkward and antisocial, and a bit of an asshole, Barfee surprises us with his impressive outbursts of choreography and, eventually, tenderness.
Marcy Park speaks six languages and she's not allowed to cry. Played by Ciera Monae, everything from her outfit to her bangs to her etiquette are perfect—and she placed in the top ten at nationals the year before. On the surface, Marcy appears to handle these high standards with ease, but Monae lets us catch glimpses of her edge. Marcy's challenge is not to win, but to discover the benefits of imperfection.
As Olive Ostrovsky, Ashleigh Haddad is essentially a sad puppy. Her large dark eyes glisten as she sings about her mother, who's off on a spiritual journey in an ashram in India, and her father, who's running late to the bee from his busy day at work. Her best friend is her dictionary, from which she's learned the magic of letter play (for example, "if you take the 'w' in answer and the 'h' in ghost and the extra 'a' in aardvark and the 't' in listen, you could keep saying 'what' but no one would hear because the whole word would be silent"). Where Coneybear is possessed by the spirit of various South American rodents for no apparent reason, or Barfee is performing his bizarre spelling ballet, Olive tethers the circus of spellers down by reminding us that these are kids, who are really just trying to please everyone else as they figure out their own heads.
The actors draw the audience in deep enough that it's distressing to see any of them misspell a word and leave the competition. The blow is softened by the beautiful voice and matching face of Lawrence D. Bryant IV as Mitch Mahoney, the "comfort counselor," handing the losers conciliatory juice boxes—his court-ordered community service. Several times throughout the show, Mahoney provides that service to the audience, when volunteers have the opportunity to participate in the competition.
He and the two other adult characters running the bee bring in some of the show's funniest moments through ab-libbing, often at the volunteers' expense. Zoe Kanter puts on her best billboard realtor face as Rona Lisa Peretti, the Putnam County bee's MC and former spelling champion—she slips in her winning word, "syzygy," as often as possible. Occasionally she sheds some wisdom in her Westminster Dog Show-like commentary, such as that boys and girls tend to respond differently when asked if they will win a competition: boys will more often assert confidence, even arrogance (Coneybear and Schwartzy seem to contradict this rule), though in reality they may doubt themselves. Girls on the other hand mask their confidence with poised modesty.
Danielle Robinette (who serves as managing director at Stillpointe and also designed the show's costumes) is transformed into Doug Panch, the grubby, graying vice principal presiding over the competition. Think Fred Willard in "Best in Show" meets your midwestern uncle who still wears suits from '87. He is the Suburban White Man at his saddest: alone, sweaty, powerless, weepy over the Pledge of Allegiance, his composure breaking under the weight of his pathetic life—much to the alarm of the children. Robinette has mastered the white male midlife crisis with aplomb and even a little empathy.
Stillpointe's new space on North Charles is tight and impossible to imbue with the appearance or atmosphere of a school auditorium ("Haven't you ever been in an underfunded auditorium before?" Schwartzy asks his competitors, an apparent nod from Stillpointe to their limited resources), so Haase opted to instead create a kind of inhabitable chalkboard. White doodles wrap around the walls and onto the stage, both painted black. Later in the play, the walls act as a surface for a live drawing though which Olive illustrates her troubling family life.
For someone like myself who has trouble stomaching big musicals, Stillpointe's ability to articulate Tony-winning spectacles (their recent programming has included "Avenue Q" and Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins" in collaboration with University of Baltimore's Spotlight UB) into charming packages for the (very) small stage is refreshing—a healthy dose of pop theater, even for Broadway-phobes. "Spelling Bee" is no exception.
Stillpointe uses the musical to showcase its greatest strength: the ensemble's immense comedic, vocal, and improvisational talents.