Location: Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Website: Official Paper Mill Playhouse site
Starring: Ephie Aardema, Will Blum, Lyle Colby Mackston, Marla Mindelle, Olivia Oguma, Jerold E. Solomon, Ali Stroker, David Volin, Brandon Yanez
My Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is probably one of the most purely fun musicals to come around in the past few years (though it’s still trumped by Avenue Q in that capacity). It’s funny and lighthearted with just enough amount of pathos tossed in to prevent it from being completely unsubstantial. The characters are exaggerated, but still relatable, the story is comical, but not a farce, and the songs are simple and tuneful, but still clever and thoughtful.
Spelling Bee tells the story of six unique students (played by adult actors) competing in a middle school spelling bee. Each dreams of taking home the top prize, but must overcome their individual hurdles to do so. The bee is preceded over by one-time spelling champ Rona and the school’s disgruntled vice principal, and former convict Mitch is performing his community service as the comfort councilor who provides the ousted spellers with a sympathetic pat on the back and a juice box. The spellers relate their various spelling—and personal—woes in a series of songs, including helicoptering same-sex parents and an unfortunately timed erection.
All in all, it’s not an overly complicated show; there are no elaborate set changes, no complicated song and dance numbers, and no need for “serious” actors. Which means that Spelling Bee is the perfect show to let loose with, and each individual production has the potential to be completely unique. There’s even an audience participation element that can be played with by a cast that’s able to think on their feet (a handful of audience members are invited on stage to be participants in the bee).
Unfortunately, no one told the Paper Mill Playhouse that this was a show that they were free to toy around with. I was lucky enough to see Spelling Bee during its Broadway run and found it to be hilarious, and while I wasn’t expecting this new production to live up to those standards, I was still expecting a bit more than what I got. Everything that I saw on stage was very by the book, as if the cast was handed the script and warned about deviating from what was on the page. The resulting production was still amusing, but it could have been uproarious if the cast had just loosened up a bit.
It also didn’t help that they obviously had a stock pile of jokes and quips to be made about the audience participants, rather than improvising in the moment. Maybe this was a conscious decision by the director who felt the cast didn’t have the comedic chops for improv, or maybe it was a huge misstep, but either way, it was noticeable and resulted in a lot of jokes that fell flat.
Bottom Line: For theatergoers who like their musicals frothy and fun, with just a modicum of risqué, Spelling Bee is an ideal choice. Just pray that you get to see a cast that’s willing to play it a little faster and looser than this one.