Something that is already exaggerated doesn’t have to be exaggerated.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is filled with the outsized. Its characters, especially its adolescent spellers, are riddled with tics, idiosyncrasies, and peculiarities. Jokes range from the neatly tongue-in-cheek to the broad. The trick in doing this show, popular but, to my mind, overrated, is to find ways to make the eccentric teens charming, or at least empathetic, and to make the self-conscious humor work.
At the Bristol Riverside Theater, T. J. Wagner understands this. The character he plays, Leaf Coneybear, provides ripe opportunities for madcap excess. Wagner resists. He presents Leaf as a likeable lad with a penchant for dressing flamboyantly, including a makeshift cape, but as a genuine kid with one genuine problem, ridicule from his parents and home-schooled siblings for being the “dumb” one.
The “bee” is Leaf’s redemption, a chance to prove he is not so stupid after all. Wagner finds a middle ground between Leaf’s oddities and a boy who elicits due sympathy, a person we can root for. His is the wished-for performance in a production that goes awry by stressing the unusual and exposing the self-consciousness in Rachel Sheinkin’s straining-at-clever book and William Finn’s utilitarian songs. Leigha Kato and Will Carlyon join Wagner in keeping their characters on a good middle path between human and overdrawn. Joshua Morgan is not too far behind them.
In general Amy Kaissar’s production for Bristol overstates and overdoes. By doing so it reveals the flaws and mechanics of Sheinkin and Finn’s work. It goes for the broad when “subtle” is the better course. It emphasizes the kookiness of the contestants without making most of them endearing as kids who just want to be liked, understood, or accepted — even if driven, naturally or by parental pressure, to succeed.
What’s missing in Kaissar’s staging is the human element, the view of the kid inside the nerd, wonk, bully, or misfit. It derives humor, which is there, from the outlandish. It’s the surface of “25th Annual” that comes through and not what is hidden, but present and yearning to be mined: heart.
This production plays on the given, and except for Wagner’s portrayal never goes too far beneath.
The given is not enough. It turns Sheinkin’s book obvious and her alleged witticisms corny. A character that is only a bundle of unconventional traits is a one-trick pony. A person, even a young person just finding his or her personality, has to be seen underneath the weirdness Sheinkin bequeaths.
One-liners, particularly those that place a presented word in a sentence, can wear out their welcome by seeming snide, and even mean, as delivered by Robert Smythe. They need to be arch and breezy, as if they’re off-the-cuff entertainments of a person lending some levity to an intense occasion and being a little silly in the bargain. Smythe lets you see Sheinkin’s labor, so the definitions become overbearing and play as cynical, taunting punishments instead of helpful clues for the contestant.
Finn’s work fares better. Most characters have a musical number in which they turn their individual tic into a song or share their unseen feelings via music. Finn’s songs range from amusingly clever to expected expression of standard teenage jags, but the cast, to a person, nails his or her chance to grab the spotlight.
Also Stephen Casey, as a choreographer, can enliven anything. His dances are rarely complex or strikingly original, but they exude movement and energy and always show the dancer at his or her best. Casey has a knack for suiting a dance to the ability of the performer assigned it, so everyone looks good doing one of his numbers.
Talent isn’t the problem with this “25th Annual.” The actors can obviously do anything asked of them. It’s the overall contentment to go with the odd over the endearing, and the pushing of comic sources that would come home on their own, that keeps Kaissar’s production from taking off or making you care about children who might need more attention or less pressure. It lacks depth, and without that, “25th Annual” seems slight and labored.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, October 15. $15 to $52. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.