But hold the (cell)phone: Some other producers recognize that the future of the American musical doesn't lie with multi-million-dollar budgets expended on what are so wrongly perceived as fail-safe ingredients. Some producers, like the not-for-profit Vineyard and Second Stage Theatre folks, understand that it's more promising to go with relatively low-budget fare so that risks can be taken, adventurous notions can be explored, and newcomers in every department can be given a chance to show their stuff.
So, just as Avenue Q was last year's surprise click, this year our sunken spirits are raised by The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. With a book by Rachel Sheinkin from Rebecca Feldman's conception and a score by William Finn, the musical is a treat and a half. Although it has urgent things to say about the American obsession with being number one, it connects primarily because Feldman, Sheinkin, and Finn have lit on a milieu in which to have a good deal of fun with music and words -- many of those words literally spelled out.
The setting is Beowulf Boritt's skewed version of a high school gym, where 10 finalists -- six of them cast members and four coaxed from the audience -- are competing for a county spelling championship with the hope of going on to the state finals. In collaborations, it's tough to know who's contributed what; here it's even tougher, because three cast members created their characters when the piece, without a Finn score, was first developed under the title C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E by The Farm, Feldman's writers-and-performers collective. Suffice it to say that the Spelling Bee characters are not only consistently hilarious but also have their own awkward grace as they relate to each other under pressure.
The plot couldn't be simpler. As the spellers are winnowed down to a champion, the dramatis personae get the chance to tell us who they are and to demonstrate their eccentricities. These include the three adult supervisors -- former champ Rona Lisa Peretti (Lisa Howard), school veep Douglas Panch (Jay Reiss), and community-service "comfort counselor" Mitch Mahoney (Derrick Baskin). The spellers, who do or don't correctly spell the likes of "phylactery," "acouchi," and "camouflage," are nervous-as-a-bug Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), spells-with-his-foot William Barfee (Dan Fogler), parent-neglected Olive Ostrovsky (Celia Keenan-Bolger), prone-to-erections Chip Tolentino (Jose Llana), outstanding Asian-American student Marcy Park (Deborah S. Craig), and gay/lesbian organizer Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Saltzberg). Incidentally, one of the four audience participants at the final press performance -- a woman named Friedman (sp? Freedman?) -- was such an accomplished speller that extra measures were taken to get her to miss.
Who wins the Putnam County event doesn't matter; that's part of the collaborators' point about competition. Indeed, the show could have been rigged so any one of the core six would prevail. What does matter are the opportunities that the authors take to amuse while presenting misfits at work and play. The narrative, such as it is, contains a few flashbacks and even a few flashes sideways; Jesus shows up in one of the latter, and his contribution is a hoot. Also, when the kids ask to hear a sentence incorporating the word that they have to spell, the responses -- apparently written by actor-playwright Reiss -- are hilarious. None will be quoted here, since giving a single one of them away would spoil the enjoyment.
As for William Finn's score, which Vadim Feichtner conducts with his usual flair, the ebullient lyricist-composer has become a master of the free-form song, rhyming when he feels like it and not until. Finn's written a toe-tapping ditty for Barfee, while Tolentino gets a delightful, overactive-hormones tune. For Olive Ostrovsky and parents, there's a moving threnody about family love. Nobody is going to call this Finn's most potent score, but it fits the proceedings seamlessly. Indeed, it helps the entire team spell hit, H-I-T, hit!