Deborah S. Craig, Sarah Saltzberg, Dan Fogler, Celia Keenan-Bolger,Jose Llana, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson inThe 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Deborah S. Craig, Sarah Saltzberg, Dan Fogler, Celia Keenan-Bolger,
Jose Llana, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Words, like people, can be strange and eccentric. It's the glory of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee that strange and eccentric words and people are so lovingly -- and creatively -- celebrated. The differences between the odd characters in the show and the supposedly normal people in the audience are brilliantly bridged when four theatergoers are chosen to join the contestants. This isn't just a stunt; rather, it's an organic and important part of the show because it ties us to the rest of the characters onstage in a very real way.

The dramatic arc of the show couldn't be simpler; it is, after all, a spelling bee, so the contestants are eliminated one by one as words are misspelled. The folks from the audience can hang in there as long as they can spell correctly. At the matinee we attended, one woman stunned the cast by nailing an impossible word. In order to allow the scripted show to go on, she was immediately called upon again -- to huge laughter from the audience -- and asked to spell an even more ridiculously difficult word. She finally left the stage to thunderous applause. And if that's not enough to establish the laid-back tone of the show, even Jesus Christ shows up to let one of the contestants know that he's not taking the spelling bee too seriously.

But don't confuse laid-back with lazy. This is not a sophomoric exercise full of easy gags. The jokes are smart -- really smart -- and the clever use of words throughout is one of the particular pleasures of the piece. Rebecca Feldman, who conceived Putnam County, and Rachel Sheinkin, who wrote the book, have given us a show in which delightful characters deliver the sort of dialogue that you'll never hear anywhere else. William Finn wrote the words and music, and its no coincidence that the composer of Inifinite Joy should have created such a joyful score. This is by no means his most emotionally weighty work, but its eagerness to surprise and delight is part and parcel with the self-discovery that occurs onstage.

The cast is exceptional. In particular, Dan Fogler gives a dynamically comic performance as William Barfee, a young misfit with a "magic foot"; Jesse Tyler Ferguson is uniquely poignant and hilarious as Leaf Coneybear, a kid with a self-esteem problem; and Jay Reiss is a marvel in his deadpan delivery of vice principal Douglas Panch's lines. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is directed with a sense of fluidity and fun by James Lapine.

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The Encore(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
The Encore
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Nightlife News!

What's in a name? Well, if you open a piano bar/cabaret in the theater district and call it The Encore, that says it all. Now you'll know exactly where to go after you see a Broadway show -- and, who knows, you might actually hear some show music there! Lennie Watts, the general manager-booker, has made the official announcement of the new club at 266 West 47th Street (between Broadway and Eighth Avenue), right across the street from the Biltmore Theatre.

The Encore will open on February 24 with a celebration from 6pm to 9pm, featuring a limited open bar, snacks, and entertainment by the staff and several of the club's future acts. For those still standing, this will be followed by an after-party. The Encore will have a piano bar on street level, with a singing staff culled from the best piano bars in town. The club will serve food as well as drinks from 9:30pm to 4am, seven days a week.

The extra treat is the cabaret showroom downstairs. Seating up to 75 people, it will officially open on Friday, March 11 with shows by two important young cabaret stars: At 7pm, multi-award-winning vocalist Julie Reyburn will offer a new show. Another award winner, Lumiri Tubo, will follow at 9:30pm in a rare New York appearance. Both performers will continue their runs throughout March and April.

Among the acts slated to appear at The Encore in weeks to come are the Gashole team of Karen Mack and Michael Holland, Steven Brinberg of Simply Barbra fame, Leslie Anderson and Ricky Ritzel, Jamie DeRoy and friends, and Richard Rodney Bennett. Reservations can be made by calling 212-221-3960. This club is, indeed, a welcome addition to the nightlife of New York City.

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Who Should Follow Harvey in Fiddler?

In our last column, we invited readers to suggest ideas for replacing Harvey Fierstein as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof when his contract expires. We promised to publish the best answer. Well, here it is (slightly edited), courtesy of Jason Charles:

"I do not want to see Fiddler on The Roof with Harvey Fierstein. I've seen him do scenes on television and I was appalled at his performance. It never dawned on me that Fiddler was a burlesque show...I guess to carry on the stunt casting joke, it would have to be Bruce Vilanch. But let's take the stunt casting even further. How about Steve and Eydie as Tevye and Golde? If we're going to continue the burlesque portion of the show, then Martin Short or Jason Alexander could tackle Tevye. In fact, Alexander could play Tevye to Short's wife. The best casting stunt would be to cast Zero Mostel's son, Josh, in the role. But the ultimate stunt casting would be Reba McEntire as Tevye."

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]