Though most of us graduate from high school, how many ever really leave it? Case in point: the weird rise over the past couple of years of spelling bees at bars like Kings, The Pinhook and Motorco, in which nerdy grownups test their poise by standing alone behind a mic on stage as the host demands they correctly spell the word "callipygian." At stake? Personal dignity—plus cash, prizes and a free tab at the bar.
With that recent craze, a similar impulse—part nostalgia, part unrequited angst—seems to drive the modest musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the season opener at Theatre Raleigh/Hot Summer Nights.
Given that the official Scripps National Spelling Bee is only open to folks in or below the eighth grade, a bit of a time warp opens up on designer Chris Bernier's puckish gym court set as adults play the geeky contestants and similarly dysfunctional adults running the show. (That includes the show's gimmick—four spellers recruited each evening from the audience, who participate—and are mocked just as roundly as the other characters—in the opening rounds of the bee.)
Spelling Bee tries to delineate the stories of six overstressed, neurotic kids who are coping with the downsides of modern families and schools. Each differently faces the drive for perfection, instilled from or despite parents that are by turns absentees, abusive or overbearing. But Rachel Sheinkin's book and William Finn's songs keep things light—indeed, a bit too light for the contestants' first-person songs to fully hit their emotional marks.
Under Lauren Kennedy's direction, Cameron Caudill brings poignancy to Olive, the latchkey kid, while Jeffrey Vizcaino nicely pilots a believable change in the character of the rotund, rejected William Barfée. Even more notable was Katie Lynch's uncanny turn as Marcy Park, an overdriven girl increasingly desperate for a way to somehow stop succeeding. Morgan Parpan, Jesse Gephart and Adam Poole ingratiated in supporting roles as other contestants.
Sterling Hurst provides comic counterpoint—and snarky definitions—as the bee's word pronouncer, Vice Principal Panch, and Heather Hamby-Maggs gives enigmatic notes of grace—and something else—as host (and former spelling champ) Rona Lisa Peretti.
Though time stops repeatedly, as spelling sessions give way to memories, musical flashbacks and internal monologues, the pacing never drags. And Jade Arnold's interpretation of what a "comfort counselor" actually provides the losers is a memorable departure from the norm.
Most surprising of all: the times when botched words don't spell disaster for the contestants, but redemption instead. They help make this Spelling Bee a light night that looks at adolescent troubles from a comfortable, and usually comic, distance.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Comedy in shades of dark and light."