The minute you relax in your seat for The Princeton Festival’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” you are buoyed by the handsomeness and brightness of Christopher Heilman’s set.
Rather than give the impression of a dusty, musty gym in which the moist sensation of exertion and perspiration lingers in the air, Heilman’s setting is classy and pristine with banners hanging from its rafters boasting how admirably Putnam County teams have fared in state competitions. Heilman is even canny enough to have two banners celebrating 2012, piquing your curiosity and prompting you to notice that each sign is for a different sport.
Director-choreographer Melissa Firlit adds to the sense of order and cleanliness by having “Putnam County” begin with Rona Lisa Perretti (Emily Schnexnaydre), a former “bee” winner, now chairman and emcee of the event, fussing with finishing touches, including blue balloons and neatened stacks of paper.
The acting of Schnexnaydre, Charity Farrell, Patrick James, and others will further set Firlit’s production apart — Schnexnaydre because of Rona’s power woman bearing and officiousness, Farrell because of the texture she gives one contestant’s fragility, and James for his solid, realistic, yet comic portrayal of an assistant principal who serves as a “bee” moderator and judge.
Infusing “Putnam County” with depth is important because William Finn’s 2005 musical, with a book by Rachel Sheinkin, is a piece that can go in any direction, including straight downhill.
Working from a concept by Rebecca Feldman, Finn and Sheinkin crafted an intentionally wacky piece about intense teenage and adult eccentrics who regard the “bee” as having the same momentousness as Wellington and Napoleon at Waterloo or Ike and Monty at Normandy Beach. Each youthful participant, strange in his or her own way, and both administrators, grinding already sharp axes, are wound to an abnormal degree. They regard winning as everything, and the Putnam County winner’s advancement to state and national finals on par with curing cancer.
Finn and Sheinkin pour on the combination of competitors’ zeal and new age sensibility that characterizes the 1990s, then ladle in some of the fist-pumping “yes” of our time to give each of the characters an edge.
The danger, skirted entirely by Firlit, is “Putnam County” can turn into a pageant of misfits singing Finn’s upbeat tunes in a vacuum that has no purpose or entertainment appeal. The musical can just as easily sprawl across the stage in bland, self-conscious sunniness or take on some depth by keying particularly into the children who invest so much and derive validation from their quest for spelling glory.
This is where Farrell makes such a difference. She plays a girl, Olive, left to her own emotional devices while her father works assiduously and her mother is off finding tranquility at an ashram in India. Like all of the characters, Olive can blur into amorphous cliche, her plight leading you to nod and say, “yeah, yeah, this old warhorse again,” but Farrell won’t let you. She elicits too much sympathy and does it naturally by being a child who rates attention and affection.
Olive, dressed prettily and less nerdily than her rivals, walks with her head down, arms planted stiffly at her side, palms out, elbows digging into the top ribs above the stomach cavity. She looks self-contained and pleading to be noticed at once. She doesn’t have to know about the “bee’s” entrance fee, a circumstance that will lead to a truly touching moment in Firlit’s production. She has no ride or parent present to support her, so she takes the bus.
These elements, including the touching moment, are, of course part of Sheinkin’s script, and Firlit and company make them resonate dramatically. Yet Firlit’s cast members make their characters so authentic, peeling away various shields, disguises, and personae to expose human cores.
So many productions of “Putnam County,” and they are legion, cannot make the elusive leap from zany and offbeat to human and affecting. Firlit’s does. It isn’t what Sheinkin or Finn wrote that makes Olive important to us. It’s Farrell’s sweet, unassuming portrayal. The touching moment I’ve mentioned twice registers because of the way Patrick James plays it.
Firlit has taken care with her production, and it’s rained dividends. She hasn’t been complacent about madcap figures in a madcap story. She hasn’t let Finn’s cheery tunes (often with less than cheery lyrics) create a happy mood. She emphasizes the longing of all of “Putnam County’s” characters to show their interiors so much more interesting that their bizarre exteriors.
I could have easily used Jamie Green’s endearing Leaf Coneybear, Ryan Corridoni’s obnoxious but sensitive William Barfee, or Amanda Berry’s confident but confused Logainne, who would like to shed some of the doctrine and pressure put on her by her gay fathers, as examples. They are terrific — Green zooming around in childlike frenzy then “zoning in” trancelike to spell words, and Corridoni making an entertaining art of Barfee’s magic foot, with which he spells and visualizes words before spelling them aloud.
Jerriel Young is funny and convincing as a bouncer and a couple of fathers. Jonathan Zeng finds humor as a spelling genius who loses concentration when he becomes aroused by Coneybear’s sister. Nicole Acevedo captures the self-contained, ungiving Marcy. And two “bee” contestants culled from the audience, Joseph Phelan and Kelly Cardoni, also acquitted themselves well.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Princeton Festival, Lewis Center for the Arts, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton. Through Sunday, June 28, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. $35 to $45. 800-258-2787 or www.princetonfestival.org.