Calling all geeks. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will embrace you with its goofy story, its quirky music and its wacky line-up of first-rate spellers, all craving that enormous golden trophy perched on the stool next to the judges. Brought to Houston by Theater Under the Stars, the musical conceived by Rebecca Feldman and Jay Reiss, with tunes and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, is a winking charmer if ever there was one.
The story starts the way many school-type functions do — with a silly grownup making dorky announcements. At this spelling bee, it's Rona Lisa Peretti (Roberta Duchak) doing the honors. The blond woman in the perfectly appropriate polyester suit is a past winner of the bee and the number one realtor in all of Putnam County. Helping her is Vice Principal Douglas Panch (James Kall), who nervously hitches his plaid pants up to his sternum when he's introduced. Apparently he had some unfortunate breakdown at the bee five years ago. This marks his triumphant return as word pronouncer. To help all those kids who won't win, Mitch Mahonney (Kevin Smith Kirkwood) takes his place as the "Official Comfort Counselor." Every loser gets a hug and a box of juice from the guy who's performing his court-ordered community service as they exit the stage.
Of course, the real stars are the spellers themselves. All played by grownups, this bunch of prepubescent nerds is a group of ugly ducklings if ever there was one. And though most will surely grow into highly successful swans, we're meeting them now, at what may be the most difficult point of their brainy lives. Poor William Barfee (Eric Roediger) has to constantly remind Vice Principal Panch that his name is pronounced "Bar-fey!" William has a magic foot that spells the words out on the floor in a grand dance of geekiness. He was eliminated from last year's competition because of his allergy to nuts. He's gunning to slam-dunk this year's bee. But Marcy Park (Katie Boren), who placed ninth at last year's nationals, has transferred in and she threatens to upset the competition. She speaks six languages, plays classical music and is an accomplished athlete. She is, in other words, the consummate winning machine.
The most politically conscious of the group is Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Elsa Carmona), who heads up the Gay/Straight Alliance at her elementary school. Her two gay dads have made her a nervous wreck with all their fussy competitiveness. Last year's winner was Chip Tolentino (Justine Keyes), whose raging hormones threaten his chances this year. The only boy who doesn't come into the bee thinking of himself as a smarty-pants is Leaf Coneybear (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), the home-schooled son of ex-hippies who makes his own clothes and can spell some of the weirdest words in Webster's good book. The most angst-ridden is pretty Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Ray), whose best friend is the dictionary. She spends long, lonely hours studying it while she yearns for her mother, who's off in India on a spiritual quest while her father, who's working late, has forgotten to give Olive the $25 entrance fee.
Full of big desire and small heartbreaks, these competitors sing out the poignant memories of a middle-class American childhood. And this shining cast makes those stinging sorrows and heart-swelling triumphs feel utterly real. Director James Lapine captures this world with a simplicity that's perfect for a story about kids. As the characters take turns at the mike to spell, we move inside their heads and discover a little bit more about each one. The music becomes an important layer in our understanding of what drives these goofballs. Marcy sings about her frustration with always winning. Leaf croons over his position at home as the "dumb" one among his siblings. And Olive's gorgeous yearning for her lost mother is a deeply felt aria to the wounding power of parents. In fact, Ray's lost and lonely speller dressed in pink overalls, sneakers and plastic barrettes is worth the price of the ticket all by herself.
The show moves quickly over the landscapes of these small lives. We get a full competition compressed into one act as the show runs without intermission. But we also get the fullness of childhood, in all its essential desires for companionship and validation — desires that haunt us into adulthood. Full of wry humor and real compassion, this Spelling Bee teaches more than what's in the dictionary. It gets down to the language of the heart.