Great news! The American musical comedy -- with equal emphasis on the "musical" part and the "comedy" part -- is alive and well. This season, woe is us, there's been an onslaught of reasons to doubt that contention; genre aficionados have been assailed with bloated tuners containing what some producers feel are recognizable and therefore commercial elements. No need to mention the offenders, but they are legion.
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).
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.
The characters and the actors who play them, given their head by savvy director James Lapine, are delicious. William Barfee, whom Dan Fogler conjured during C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, spells out words with his "magic" right foot before committing to them. Watching the chubby Fogler execute these maneuvers with a snake's fluidity is wonderful, but no more wonderful than watching Jesse Tyler Ferguson when Leaf Coneybear can't believe his bad luck at drawing extremely obscure words. Celia Keenan-Bolger's Olive is touching when thinking about her father, who's late for the contest, and her mother, who's off meditating in India. Also touching is the budding Barfee-Ostrovsky romance. Deborah S. Craig as Marcy, maintaining that she's not all business, locates the pathos in a girl who's expected to excel at everything. Jose Llana as Chip, singing about his embarrassing "protuberance," and Sarah Saltzberg as Logainne, crusading for her equal-rights cause, are adorable. The adults have less to do -- and, in the instance of former spelling-bee champ Rona Lisa Peretti, it would have been helpful to know more about the woman. Still, they're bright adornments to a show that Jennifer Caprio has wittily costumed and Natasha Katz has lit well.
A note on the transfer: Moving The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee to a Broadway house looked to be a risky endeavor, but the producers turn out to know just what they're doing. Circle in the Square, which set designer Beowulf Boritt has turned into a 360-degree high school gym (conducive lobby included), is a space that lends itself to a multitude of opportunities. James Lapine has taken advantage of all of them. In a season when too many directors have sent actors scurrying through the audience in a misguided attempt to make ticket-buyers part of a play's world, Lapine is the one who has made this conceit work like a charm. Some of the hyperkinetic activity went on when the endlessly charming and full-of-giggles musical bowed at Second Stage in February, but even more of it is cheerfully afoot now. There's even a divine appearance by a divine body, unexpectedly floating in on stage mist. Surrounded by numerous felt banners that declare "Bully-Free Zone" or promote the school's athletic team, the Piranhas, this peripatetic cast continues to realize beautifully Sheinkin's quirky book and Finn's blissfully idiosyncratic score.
Little has been changed in Sheinkin's dialogue, although a very funny joke about Benedict XVI is spouted. Incidentally: Playwright Jay Reiss, playing nervous and bitter vice principal Douglas Panch, is credited with providing additional material, which means that he's written many of his own lines. If he thought up the throwaway comment "I have a niacin condition," hats off to him.