The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
(© Joan Marcus)
The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
(© Joan Marcus)
Who could have predicted the fascinating artistic journey of the once innocuous spelling bee? In the last few years, "the bee," as it is affectionately known by those most intimate with it, has emerged as the metaphorical tool of choice for observing our society in microcosm and for laying bare both the outer and inner lives of its traditionally young contestants. Think of Myla Goldberg's novel Bee Season, and the popular indie films Spellbound and Akeelah and The Bee.

And then there is the Tony Award-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, whose first national tour has just made its first stop at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre. Despite the inevitable issues that small shows face when forced to play large venues on the road, Spelling Bee has happily retained the humble charm of its regional and Off-Broadway roots.

A rare example of a crowd pleaser that lacks blockbuster size and status, the show hews tightly to its deceptively simple look at a motley group of middle-school kids as they participate in a one-night, regional-level spelling bee. Comporting themselves like the precocious spawn of a musical comedy marriage between You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown and A Chorus Line, the young characters reveal through song, monologue and, of course, spelling their deepest hopes and fears, dreams and neuroses, triumphs and catastrophes. By the time the bee ends, we have come to know all of them intimately; we're charmed into rooting for each one but aware that spelling bee rules dictate a single winner. As a result, characters we've come to love will face the pain of loss and failure before our eyes.

And yet, not. In the sweet, slightly Dr. Phil-like vortex where William Finn's music and lyrics meet Rachel Sheinkin's book, there are no real losers. The pathologically overachieving characters in Spelling Bee may come from broken, discombobulated families or be afflicted with physiological tics and emotional hang-ups. They may even sprout inconveniently timed erections in public. But they survive, going on -- as we're told -- to win future bees, enjoy successful careers, and become parents themselves. As they sing in from the vantage point of later years in the show's finale, that distant evening when they were all together in the Putnam County spelling bee was, despite the trauma of competition, "a very nice beginning."

Spelling Bee has been altered slightly from its Broadway incarnation. For the Baltimore performance, lines were rewritten to reference local institutions like Cal Ripken and The Calvert School, and even to comment on such currently in-the-news subjects as e-coli-tainted spinach. Not surprisingly, the Hippodrome crowd seemed to dig these inclusions. Indeed, Spelling Bee has always carried a whiff of the reality show format, with members of the audience recruited to play early-round bee contestants. (The book's structure cleverly allows for them to be dispatched pretty quickly, but not before they've been given a fair chance to succeed or fail as spellers.)

Despite these changes, the show's inherent strengths remain, chief among them James Lapine's inventive and economical direction, Sheinkin's engaging book, and Finn's endearing score. The tour's cast is uniformly excellently cast; I was particularly fond of Michael Zahler's Leaf Coneybear, Lauren Worsham's touching Olive Ostrovsky, Miguel Cervantes' erection-springing Chip Tolentino, Eric Petersen's magic-footed William Barfee, and Jennifer Simard's pitch-perfect hostess, Rona Lisa Peretti. But everyone in the ensemble cast gets a moment (or two) to shine. Thanks in part to them, audiences everywhere are sure to collectively award this show the letter it seeks: an "A."