Critic’s notebook: There are two ways to spell it. Both casts are champions in Good Company’s ‘Spelling Bee.’
Before the bee begins, first the rules.
A speller may ask questions
about the word’s pronunciation or definition,
its use in a sentence,
and its language of origin.
If you start to spell a word, you may start over …
It’s a musical, so we learn this in a song. Up to this point, the explanation has been delivered briskly by Mr. Panch, the vice principal assigned to help moderate the event. But the elementary-school competitors who have reached the finals of the Putnam County Spelling Bee can’t take the excitement and nervousness anymore. They explode in unison, their words coming out in a breathless chant, as they finish the sentence:
But the sequences of letters already spoken may not be changed!
Would it surprise you – nay, shock you – that this tiny clump of tune and lyrics is – and always has been – my favorite moment in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”?
Yes, there are so many other melodic and compelling moments in the show that could vie for my attention as my favorite: pithy lyrics and music that can still make me laugh out loud on the 100th (500th?) listening; anguished lyrics and music that capture the sweet, sticky, sometimes-hell that makes up childhood; profound lyrics and music that soar with heart and nostalgia.
But hear me out. I think about the composer of the show, William Finn. He’s one of the few humans on this planet whom I would bow to if I bumped into him on the street, as if he were royalty. Or perhaps start a cult for, if I looked good in billowy white robes. The remarkable thing about “The Rules Song” is that it is crafted from the mundane. You’ve heard the line about the proverbial phone book being recited by some golden-toned person who can still wow an audience with his or her performance. To write a song that sticks with me, that inspires me, that can brighten my day – all centered around a list of boring spelling-bee rules – well, that takes a talent in the stratosphere.
In the end it’s a sign of how much I love this show.
I’ve seen “Spelling Bee” several times, beginning with a performance of the national tour in San Francisco (notably led by Visalia native Betsy Wolfe in one of her first big Broadway breaks). With each production, my love for it deepens.
When Shawn Williams, director of the beautifully crafted Good Company Players production currently playing through May 15 at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, decided to double-cast the show, I knew what I had to do:
See it twice.
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The main reason I wanted to see the two versions back-to-back is the caliber of the performers. Consider the role of Douglas Panch, the aforementioned vice principal whose chipper demeanor is chipped away, alas, to reveal something of a frustrated, dilapidated soul. How in Finn’s name could I make a choice between GCP veterans Terry Lewis and Gordon Moore?
Or pick between Amalie Larsen and Emily Pessano, both playing the relentlessly optimistic Rona Lisa Peretti, the former spelling-bee champion who returns each year as moderate and relives her memories? Each brings a soaring voice and superb comic timing to the role. Picking between them is like having to choose between a piece of pecan pie and a chocolate peanut-butter brownie: Honestly, I’d rather have both.
That’s how I ended up attending two performances in 36 hours – a Friday evening show and a Sunday matinee. By the end of the weekend, my brain was so steeped in “Spelling Bee” that I could rattle off the letters for “hasenpfeffer” along with William Barfee (alternately played with nostril-clearing hilarity by Jacob Phelen and Teddy Maldonado).
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I’ll interject right here with a clarification: It wasn’t my intention to pick a “winner” for each character between the two casts. I highly recommend both line-ups. What I wanted more was to experience those small details of difference, to see the various choices made by the actors, to get an alternative-universes view of this warm and witty musical.
In the “Numbers” cast, I love Ben Applegate’s diffuse, zany, little-boy giddiness in the role of Leaf Coneybear, the youngest speller. He is a self-proclaimed gentle soul in a family of rough-and-tumble siblings, and to watch his delight in excelling in such a field as spelling bee is to witness the first wobbly steps of the maturation process. There’s a hint of the metaphysical here; each time Leaf is asked to spell, he goes into a sort of trance, as if his body has been temporarily appropriated by some spirit with a master command of the English language. Applegate’s eyes go wide and his body into an almost photovoltaic mode, like a moth drawn to the light, as the letters come to him one by one. He goes into a spell to spell.
The “other” Leaf, in the “Letters” cast, is played by Michael Fidalgo, who finds a bit more of a world-weariness in the character. Part of this is simply a function of age. Fidalgo is older than Applegate, and those few extra years add another dimension to the character. And part is Fidalgo’s ability to find the adult in the child, so to speak. I can see his Leaf, especially, going home after the bee and telling his siblings to go to hell. As he begins to carve out his own declarative space in a tumultuous household, Leaf’s performance in the finals is a declaration of war trumpeted by his emerging adolescence.
◊ ◊ ◊
In terms of the ages of the cast, I don’t know if Williams, as director, consciously aimed for giving one a more youthful sheen than the other, but I definitely walked away with that impression. For the “Letters” cast, he assigned GCP veteran Jessica Sarkisian the role of the young, precocious Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre. (I love that name. I’m reminded of a moment in the musical “A Class Act” when the leading character, enthusing over his wife’s alma mater, proclaims: “Bryn Mawr – God, the spelling of that school alone thrills me!”) It’s a hilarious outing for Sarkisian, whose pigtail effusiveness masks a little girl chafing under oppressive parental expectations. Her performance is complemented by Kindle Lynn Cowger in the “Numbers” cast, a generation younger, whose Logainne feels a bit more vulnerable. When she sings “I’m a Loser,” I wanted to give her a hug.
Another age-difference example: Chloe Cooper, making her GCP debut, and Camille Gaston, another GCP veteran, as the soft-spoken Olive Ostrovsky, who suffers not from parental overreach but indifference. To watch both casts is to watch two very different Olives – not one better than the other, but each poking into varying crevices of the character. I found myself musing about what it would be like to put both Olives in the same room and see what they could learn from each other.
I felt much the same way with the other characters. Lex Martin and Daniel Hernandez are perhaps most in sync as Chip Tolentino, the previous bee winner sidelined by adolescent lust. (Though each has a different take in the song’s “Chip’s Lament,” in which he agonizes over his “unfortunate erection,” both find a wry, randy take on the lyrics.) Kaitlyn Dean and Maria Monreal both find sympathetic patches in the ironclad Marcy Parks, the much-pushed super talent who has grown weary of “winning.” (The show has a great deal to say about parental overkill.)
And Jonathan Padilla and Xavier Gonzalez, sharing the role of Mitch Mahoney, the “comfort counselor,” find different comic emphases in their characters. I’m glad I got to see them both.
◊ ◊ ◊
Did I get bored watching one “Spelling Bee” after another? Not at all. The show features major improvisational moments, including the incorporation of audience volunteers as sacrificial first spellers. I retain a tender memory from the second cast’s performance of one of those audience members completely befuddled by the idea of kicking in a chorus line, but not out of resistance; at one point, she swayed in time with the music so enthusiastically I worried she would fall off the bleachers.
Also, and I cannot emphasize enough, Finn wrote some beautiful music for this show, including the sweeping “The I Love You Song.” I could listen to that every day.
“Spelling Bee” would not be the same if young children were actually playing the child contestants; the show’s appeal rests with the idea of adults looking back. There is so much pressure in society on kids to grow up, to toughen up, and too soon. Finn wistfully captures the cold plunge into the pool of adolescence. “The best spellers don’t necessarily win,” the children sing in “Pandemonium.” You got it, kids: Life ain’t fair.
In “Woe Is Me,” they acknowledge the demands put upon them: “Be smart, be cool, be remarkably adroit in social situations.”
Act like mini-adults, in other words.
Would any of us want to go back to being children? I seriously doubt it. But one of the joys (and, for some, curses) of being human, as opposed to being a giraffe, say, whom I am reasonably sure is not able to remember the time the other teenage giraffes teased him for not being asked to the prom, is the ability to fixate on the past We look back on our formative years, and in doing so, we reminisce, ponder and blame. We ache for what was.
Back to “The Rules.”
In that song, the second of the show, Rona considers the scene just before the bee begins. She looks at those fresh-faced contestants on stage. They are nervous, expectant, excited. Who will win? Like them, Rona sees the view all the way to the mountains – everything clear, and wide open, and possible. She sings:
Before anyone is disqualified
And before proceedings turn snide
And contestants turns nasty
I soberly confide
In the moment before the Bee
Claims its first catastrophe
I love what I see
Kids acting innocently
Thanks for spelling it out for us, William Finn … and Good Company Players.