Monday, June 11, 2007

Insert Spelling Bee Pun Here


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Directed by James Lapine
Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place

There are two parts to this review. An assessment of the show and how it was developed.

1) It's good. Go see it.

I could leave it at that, but here's more to back it up.

This show, while dealing with racial and social stereotypes and the role parents play in shaping - or damaging - the personalities of children, is very funny and light. It plays that double-edge of a Bullwinkle cartoon where kids will enjoy it and parents will get it's darker moments.

The musical is almost two hours long and performed without an intermission, which I think is a slight mistake. There's a bit of a drag in the last half hour that I think wouldn't happen if the audience took a ten minute breather.

The cast is all brilliant with great comic timing and solidly comfortable in their characters. Eric Roediger is incredible as the phlegmatic William Barfee (pronounced bar-fay). I have previously only seen scenes from this show on last year's Tony Awards, and from what I could tell, Eric was able to take this iconic character from the show and make it his own without altering the dynamics. Quite a feat. I was also blown away by Marcy Park (played by Christine Bunuan) who has the most racially stereotyped role, second only to the Community Service Comfort Counselor, Mitch Mahoney (James Earl Jones II, showing some nice range as he slips into other supporting roles). Marcy is an over accomplished little Asian Catholic school girl who speaks six languages and is very oppressed by her parents into being "all business." She really lets it rip in her send-off song where she twirls a baton, does gymnastics, plays piano and really belts out a rockin' tune. That was the energy peak of the show and everything that came after seemed anti-climactic.

What I also enjoyed about the show is how they use the whole space - the lobby and the audience included - as their playground. There are even four audience volunteers who are used as other contestants. This is a very smart move. It's a competition, people need to be eliminated, but you don't want to can any of your main characters right away. They take good care of their volunteers, too. Even in such a raucous number as Pandemonium which has everyone, including the volunteers, running all over the stage. It also helped develop a connection between the audience and the show. There was a vested interest in seeing one of our own up there.

Bottom line, it's a smart, funny piece that's well-performed.

2) How it was developed. When I first heard about this show and saw snippets of it on The Tony Awards, I was suspicious. Second City had done a similar sketch back in the early '90's with Steve Carrell and Steve Colbert. Like that sketch, this show deals with racism, winning and losing, and trying to be true to yourself as a child in facing an adult world (on a side note, the SC sketch in it's original form was much edgier and ended in violence. Since Columbine, the ending has been sadly watered down in the touring company shows and now has a non-violent "message." Barf.) My impression was that this show was just an over bloated sketch using music for filler.

My suspicions were confirmed - in my mind, anyway - when I heard that the show was developed through improvisation. I came across that information when I was talking to a friend of mine in New York and mentioned that the writer of the musical's book, Rachel Sheinkin, looked really uncomfortable during her acceptance speech for Best Book for a Musical. She probably looked uncomfortable because she didn't write the dialogue. It was mostly written by the original cast while the piece was being developed as a play called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E by a compnay called
The Farm. Now, I don't fault her for winning a Tony and I don't know exactly what her contribution was. I suspect her role was more like a documentarian who takes miles and miles of film footage and crafts a story. But I do think those original cast members should have been on stage with her. After seeing the show, I recommend going to their website and seeing the cut from the original show. You'll see characters and bits that made it to the final version, but also characters that were cut. So, should those actors be included as writers of the piece? Yeah, I think so. What gets cut from the show also helps define what emerges. There could have been upwards to twenty people on that stage with her.

Developing material through improvisation is a huge chemistry experiment. Change one element - from a cast member to the stage manager - and things could turn out differently. It's tricky terrain when it comes to taking ownership of the material. Second City sometimes gets into hot water with it's actors over it. Their policy is that the scenes themselves belong to Second City, the characters created belong to the improviser who created it. Given the amount of material that's been generated there over 45 years, it's the smartest thing to do. Just in Chicago, I've seen a few shows developed through collaborative improvisation only to see their potential devolve over equal representation of the characters in the show to quarrels over ownership of the material down the road. I applaud The Farm for seeing worth in their material and having the foresight to be able to turn it over to others to shape. In the show itself, you can see the fruits of their labor. The show plays like a tight, improvised, longform musical with cutaways in the moment that take us deeper into the psyche of the characters.

By the way, while bearing a similarity to that SC sketch, Putnam County stands on it's own.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a bright, fun evening and a fine example of how improvisation can be used to develop sustainable material.