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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Stepping Up to the Mic

This arch, hilarious, wacky, and poignant romp of a musical uses the setting of a small town spelling bee as a jumping off point for an extended riff on perfectionism, adolescent insecurity, rejection, parental love (or rather, lack thereof), language, winning, losing, and…well, what else is there in life? The characters, a motley crew of nerdy high school students, bring all their festering angst and internal conflict to the microphone in their heartfelt attempts to spell correctly and win approval. Then they sing and dance and spell some more.

"Putman County" started in 2002 as a show titled C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, by an improv group called The Farm in a converted Lower East Side garage. One of the characters was played by a woman who happened to be playwright Wendy Wasserstein's nanny. Wasserstein brought the work to the attention of "Falsettos" composers and lyricist William Finn. The piece eventually made it from off-off-off to actually-on Broadway, where it became a smash, racking up rave reviews, sellouts, and a Tony Award. The San Francisco production is directed by James Lapine ("Sunday in the Park with George", "Into the Woods"), the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winner who also directed the Broadway production.

The show demonstrates its improv roots to great advantage in its total unpredictability, zany stage direction and out-of-the-blue emotional outbreaks. It seems to run on the hormonally challenged logic of the teenage brain -- at any moment, a straight dialogue scene can suddenly erupt into a chaotic, kaleidoscopic musical number like "Life is Pandemonium", replete with schmaltzy, sardonic lyrics, singing forays into the audience, and goofy chorus line hoofing.

The characters all deftly capture teenage dorkiness, from the jittery, embarrassed Edward Scissorhands-like Leaf Coneybear, to the simmering overachiever rage of Marcy Park, the prim, perky, pigtailed hysteria of Logaine Swartzabdgrubenierre, and the smug, neurotic schlumpiness of eventual champion William Barfee. The trio of adults who run the bee also project a bizarre caricature of authority figures: the Jane Curtain-ish blond real estate agent and former Bee champion who serves as emcee; the majestically dorkified principal complete with corduroy jacket, horn rim glasses, and 60s Rotary Club haircut; and the beefy, dreadlocked bouncer/comfort counselor who dispenses hugs and juice boxes to the losers. Several characters also do double duty as the offstage parents of the contestants.

The script makes witty, playful use of language throughout -- according to the rules (which are dutifully sung in unison by the entire cast) when presented with a word, contestants can ask for the word to be used in a sentence. This produces lines like "Sally's mother told her that it was her cystitis that made her special." The play gets us in touch with the kind of idiotic zero-sum contests that we engage in despite ourselves. We hate to lose and we love to win, and somehow, spelling is still important.

Like any great comedy, Putnam County has its tragic moments, most notably the heartbreaking trio sung by runner-up Olive Ostrovsky and her two missing parents -- the dad who is perpetually running late, and the mom who is off seeking her soul at an ashram in India. We feel Olive's pain as her parents proudly croon about how much they love her and how they always knew she was a winner while all she can ask is "Where are you? When are you coming back?"

"Putnam County" is appropriate for all ages, especially pre-teens and adolescents, and is so thoroughly engaging that it simply whizzes by -- it's a solid no-intermission two-hour production that feels like barely forty five minutes. (Time just evaporates in the wake of non-stop belly laughs). And anyone can spell P-H-U-N. Oops. It's here for an indefinite run, so check it out.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
playing at the Post Street Theater
tickets $40-66