On the other hand, you know from the get-go that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (at the Wilbur Theatre indefinitely), despite the preponderance of phonically gifted losers on stage, is a winner. The chipper host of the title junior-high-age event announces that its “usual word pronouncer, Mayor Menino,” can’t make it. His replacement, a vice-principal with a short fuse, parades up an aisle neatly grazing audience heads with a large American flag. The pledge is then led by a dreadlocked ex-con “comfort counselor” whose bee-related “community service” will consist of passing out hugs and juice boxes to those eliminated from the competition. And the first song of Tony winner William Finn’s bouncy, complicated score includes the lyric “Like idiots, we ideate.” Best of all, we’re not up there feeling our hearts pound and our palms sweat as we wait to be bombarded by the likes of “phylactery” and “hasenpfeffer.”
Oh wait, some of us are. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee began life, before getting a 2004 makeover at Barrington Stage Company and growing the sprightly Finn score, as a far-off-Broadway improvisation with the dubious title C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E. And it retains an audience-interactive element that is as well integrated as any I’ve seen. (In general, I think audiences should remain resolutely in their seats.) Sometime before each performance, scouts select four spectators to be contestants along with the six charming if quasi-pathetic actor spellers vying nightly. The three adults and one gangly kid chosen on opening night were given surprisingly witty introductions when they came to the mike to face the orthographic music, and they were, if not exactly incorporated into the dance numbers, deftly dragged along. Should these interlopers prove too-formidable spellers, word deployer Douglas Panch (an insidious Daniel Pearce) has up his sleeve, along with the amusingly useless sentences he supplies the spellers, a cache of killer multi-phonemes guaranteed to eject the amateurs before they get in the way of the show.
Myla Goldberg’s novel Bee Season and the documentary film Spellbound had already mined the entertainment potential of the spelling bee when Putnam County made its way from Berkshire County to Off Broadway and then Broadway, winning a Tony for Rachel Sheinkin’s very funny book. Such competitions offer a curious blend of hilarity, pathos, education, and Theatre of Cruelty — all on display here as six intrepid spellers, as tightly wound as competitor Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre’s pigtails, battle nerves, self-consciousness, and the deep interstices of the dictionary. Each has his or her tics and crosses to bear, Logainne’s including pressure from the two hovering gay dads from whom she gets her amalgamated surname. By contrast, lonely Olive Ostrovsky wishes there were a parent around to turn the screws. Dazed and home-schooled Leaf Coneybear doesn’t think he’s smart enough. Marcy Park, who placed ninth in last year’s national bee, is about to implode in a frenzy of overachievement. Chunky William Barfee, who spells with the aid of a “magic foot” tracing the words in script across the stage floor, has “a mucus-membrane problem.” And defending champ Chip Tolentino’s chances go up in the flames of “My Unfortunate Erection.”