Either actress Becca Ayers is quick as an ad libber, or she had a sharp advance scout feeding her lines, because some unscripted parts of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Bucks County Playhouse were cleverer and more pointed than the actual text.
“Spelling Bee” enlists four volunteers from each audience, allegedly to compete with the student participants in a hard fought contest to see who will represent Putnam County in a national spelling tournament. As characters take their turns, former champ and emcee Rona Lisa Peretti (Ayers) says something about them in the manner of a baseball play-by-play announcer. Those descriptions were really observant when it came to the volunteers.
One was wearing all green, and Ayers quipped he “has a tendency to get lost in his garden.” She also make good use of one guest speller wearing a vest and another wearing flip-flops. Perhaps her best shot was saying one adult contestant went “gray” in the fifth grade.
The purpose of the volunteers is to add a little mystery and local color to a production. Even though the guests get words like “cow” and “Mexican,” they soon get one designed to eliminate them. On opening night at BCP, one guest, Drew, was so adept, it took three consecutive words before he missed. A decent actor as well as a good speller, Drew responded well when escorted off stage by the official bee comforter, Mitch Mahoney (Maurice Murphy), performing this role as part of his community service commitment.
It’s a one-joke pony about why Mahoney is there, but the character is lucky to be played by Murphy, who can give a tough, no-nonsense “I’m going to cut you” look followed by equally convincing expressions of amusement or sympathy.
Small touches, such as Ayers’s ad libs and Murphy’s versatility within his character, drive BCP’s production of “Spelling Bee.” Director Jessica Stone has asked her professional cast to be broad and stylistic in their comic portrayals. Her choices entertain, but it keeps BCP’s “Spelling Bee” from seeming realistic, a mode in which the musical composed by William Finn with a book by Rachel Sheinkin based on a conception by Rebecca Feldman, works best.
Stone’s exaggeration of the characters’ already bizarre traits — Bee participants are presented as the nerdiest and most compulsive misfits in Putnam County — works in spite of magnifying the obvious. That’s because she keeps scenes tight, gets strong choreography from Conner Gallagher, and presides over a cast that, individually and as an ensemble, knows how to win over an audience.
Since everything plays so big, it’s the subtleties and consistencies that count to make Stone’s staging more than run of the mill.
Sumi Yu is so imperturbably expressionless as genius contestant Marcy Park you delight in her ability to keep all emotion and reaction perfectly contained and exult as she comes to the big moment when Marcy takes a risk that informs the rest of the adolescent’s life.
Yu is a study in composure, slightly losing her poise only when her intelligence is underestimated or her accomplishments misstated. She creates a comic treat when Rona announces Marcy speaks five languages, and Marcy counters, “I do not,” as a preamble to her song about achievement, “I Speak Six Languages,” during which Yu plays a violin.
Yu’s ability to keep Marcy unreadable enhances the joy the actress expresses and the audience shares when Marcy makes her bold move.
“Spelling Bee” is not only about children being talented with diction. It’s about the personal things going in the kids’ lives, especially the things that irk them or make them feels sad, such as one contestant being taunted by his siblings as the stupid one in the family, another participant being bullied into perfection by the more obsessive of her gay fathers, and a third who is virtually abandoned by her parents but gets along fine anyhow.
All of these children experience victories by being in the bee, but Yu’s performance is the most outstanding because of her timing and reserve. Stone’s staging prevents the other children’s revelations from being all that poignant or heart-tugging.
Others besides Yu have the chance to shine. Chip Tolentino (George Salazar) misses a word while he’s having a sexual response to a girl’s tight sweater. Salazar maximizes the sentiments of “My Unfortunate Erection” by giving an upright microphone a dirty look. Meanwhile, Stone has incorporated projections designed by Stephen Arnoczy, one of which is the Washington Monument with the slashed red prohibition circle condemning its phallic suggestion.
Leaf Coneybear (Ryan Breslin) is sweet as he runs with his arms outstretched like a boy pretending he’s flying. Breslin shows a totally different mood when he plays a father with impossible, yet impeachable, standards. William Barfee (Paul Pilcz), whose name is always mispronounced — no accent aigu — is the quintessential nerd and assured competitor. Olive Ostrovsky (Caitlin Houlihan) is giving and natural while her rivals are nasty and freakish. Logainne Schwartzandgrubinierre (Katie Ladner) is pompous about her political correctness and boasts, in a future projection, that she, a lesbian, is in the cabinet of President Chaz Bono.
Ladner was one performer for whom I felt a tad sorry. She follows Stone’s directions brilliantly, but those directions include giving Logainne a lisp and dressing and coifing her too comically in plaid pants, black blazer, white shirt, and tie with her hair parted in the middle and gathered on each side in tight pony tails. Bad! Yet the Chaz Bono comment is one of several fine, and funny, updates that contemporize Sheinkin’s 11-year-old script.
Deadpan rules the day because in addition to Yu, Colin Hanlon’s portrayal of a cynical vice principal pressed into bee service and taking no guff, is one of the production’s gems.
Aside from the horror foisted on Logainne, Tilly Grimes’s costumes are plausible, especially the get-up for Leaf Coneybear, the quick turnabout when Breslin plays Logainne’s father, the street clothes for Mitch, and Olive’s elephant print skirt. Charlie Corcoran creates a realistically garish school gymnasium filled with bulletin boards on a sickly yellow background. Finn’s music is tuneful, but his lyrics are a mixed bag of wit and tripe. Sheinkin’s book seems precious in Stone’s hands, but it works where it counts, and it entertains.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. Tuesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., and Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 2 p.m. Through Sunday, September 6, $29 to $85, 215-862-2121 or visit www.bcptheater.org.