Every small theatre company dreams of having its original play adapted and produced on Broadway. For New York-based improv-comedy group The Farm, this dream came true when Wendy Wasserstein and William Finn transformed their sketch act C-R-E-P-E-S-C-U-L-E into Tony Award-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Now Spelling Bee, which has already pleased audiences in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, has begun an extended run at the Wilbur Theatre. Jon B. Platt, presenting producer of the show, could not have chosen a better venue than the Wilbur. The theatre's casual atmosphere, emphasized by the student-made posters and art projects pinned to the walls, suggests a middle-school auditorium instead of a Broadway-style theatre. In a press release, Platt admitted he chose the Wilbur because of its intimate size and atmosphere, which draws the audience into this very cozy, participation-driven production.
Spelling Bee premiered in 2004 and in 2005 joined the movement to bring humor back to Broadway, accompanying other new musicals such as Hairspray and Avenue Q, as well as the more recent Monty Python's Spamalot and The Drowsy Chaperone. But Spelling Bee, a witty mix of adolescent anguish and Fosse-esque hip swivels, may be the first of its genre to successfully incorporate a message as well as junior high potty humor.
Part of Spelling Bee's success is that it depends heavily on audience participation, forcing viewers to become emotionally involved whether they want to or not. Many dramatic conventions are cast aside. The characters never break the fourth wall and acknowledge that they are in a play, but rather they draw the audience into the show, where they are cast as attendees at the bee.
Characters make safety and courtesy announcements directly to the audience, address them from stage, and even enter the aisles to bid other contestants goodbye or throw out candy.
Additionally, audience members who arrive at the Wilbur early and complete a questionnaire may find themselves even more involved in the production.
The play itself takes place over the course of the bee, with interludes into the memories and fantasies of each character as they take their turn at the microphone.
Since Spelling Bee is presented without ensemble, this is accomplished by all of the actors abandoning their core characters and taking on multiple roles as parents and siblings.
Similarly, the stage represents an average middle-school gym, but the back third is separated by curtains and mobile flats which, when parted, reveal various backdrops and settings. This, along with severe changes in lighting, cues the audience that we have left the gymnasium and stepped into the characters' hearts and minds.
Because we are introduced to each character so intimately, audience members can't escape identifying at least a little with all of them. In the show's true-to-life, awkward depiction of those horrible in-between years rests the true secret of its success. Everyone has, at some point, been teased by a sibling or friend.
Everyone knows what it's like to be embarrassed in public, by a lisp or an ill-timed erection, and these become points of comedy that the entire audience can relate to. Spelling Bee builds off these to explore deeper issues: anyone raised by working or absent parents will be deeply touched by "The I Love You Song;" chronic over-achievers of the world should just adopt "I Speak Six Languages" as their anthem now.
The writers of Spelling Bee could have avoided any contention and created a pure comedy-in essence, a younger Avenue Q. They deserve applause for choosing not to skirt the issues surrounding adolescence and parenthood. Put together, Spelling Bee is a charming, hysterically funny play that offers a strong criticism of children and parents in our society today.
Essentially, if you ever went to middle school, were ever 14, ever had a pimple, or were ever born, there is something in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee that will resonate with you.