This fiasco is all the more deplorable because this program isn't new; the CD upon which the act is based is sitting on our table at home. Nor is Boone's patter difficult or complicated. The show is devoted to her beloved mother-in-law, Rosemary Clooney. That late, great singer willed all of her classic arrangements to Boone and, on top of that, Boone is performing at Feinstein's with half-a-dozen of Clooney's regular musicians, including the legend's musical director for 20 years, John Oddo. How could she go wrong with great songs, great arrangements, a great band, and great insider anecdotes about one of cabaret's most beloved performers? Finally, Boone is hardly inexperienced, what with three Grammy Awards and seven additional Grammy nominations. (Just in case you didn't know this, she has basically spent a lifetime in show business as the daughter of the mid-century pop icon Pat Boone.)
Best known for her 1977 pop hit "You Light Up My Life," Debby Boone still looks like she could light up most any man; trim and youthful, she has that golden girl look. Her voice is as golden as she is, yet it's not distinctive, and she is unable to act persuasively in her singing. Only two numbers stood out in her program of more than 15 songs, one devoted to her husband ("The Music That Makes Me Dance") and another devoted directly to Rosemary ("You are There"). These were the only two performances that sounded as if they were genuinely felt. The lesson here is that neither great songs nor great arrangements can make a mediocre singer superb.
After covering cabaret for years and witnessing many hard-working, talented people struggle for their art, we're angry to see someone with so many advantages take them so lightly. We understand that life is unfair and that some folks have all the luck, all the beauty, all the money, all the connections. But if you've got all of that, the least you can do is learn your lines!
The production has been adapted beautifully and naturally to the new space; in fact, it now looks much more like an actual spelling bee taking place in a school gymnasium with seats rising up on three sides of the stage. There are also a great many more seats closer to the action here than when the show was originally presented at Second Stage.
Having had the advantage of seeing it twice, as we did most of this season's musicals, we are left with no doubt that Spelling Bee is the cream of the crop. The entire cast is sensational but, beyond that, the book (Rachel Sheinkin) and score (William Finn) are indelible. For all its apparent simplicity, the tightly woven fabric of the show -- the way the dialogue, music, and lyrics intertwine -- is the equivalent of musical theater DNA. In its intricacy, there is magic. This year's various theater awards might ultimately go elsewhere for all sorts of reasons, but Spelling Bee is the great achievement of the 2004-2005 season.
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