Until I finally saw The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, in smart young director Scott Weinstein's assured new production for Griffin Theatre Company, the show had come to be one of my most prominent blind spots. Since moving quickly from Off Broadway to a Broadway run in 2005, the improv-musical hybrid has become by far the most-produced show for composer William Finn (Falsettos, A New Brain). Despite a number of opportunities, beginning with a yearlong commercial run at what's now the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, I kept putting off the show.
I'm happy to report, only eight years late, that it was worth the wait. This delightful confection, penned by Finn with his onetime student Rachel Sheinkin and based on an improv scenario conceived by Rebecca Feldman, is a remarkably effective blend of scripted musical, improvisation and audience involvement that reaches back to the idealism of kid-dom without getting (too) cutesy about it. Six adult actors portray six idiosyncratic middle-school-aged spellers at the county finals; also in the scrabble are four audience members, recruited before the show.
Sheinkin's gently sardonic book and Finn's juicebox-sweet score blend to offer just enough backstory about the quirky contestants and the ridiculousness of the contest they're in; the writers demonstrate great affection for their creations but a gimlet, adult eye toward the universal discomforts of adolescence.
It feels unfair to single out anyone among Weinstein's astounding young cast, some of whom for which this isn't their first Spelling Bee. But Laura McClain deserves a callout as the bee's unctuous former-champ host; the rising musical-theater actress appears to be having unprecedented fun working her improv chops to wrangle the guest spellers. Among the kids, Landree Fleming as the lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, whose unwieldy last name combines those of her pressuring dads, and Daniel Desmarais as Leaf Coneybear, a special snowflake who designs his own outfits, make big impressions, but then so do spellers Charlotte Mae Ellison, Conor McCahill, Rochelle Therrien and William Lucas, and adults Steven Perkins and Andy Cameron. There's good reason this show has seen such wide success. Don't wait to have it spelled out for you.