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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee logo
Celia Keenan-Bolger, Robb Sapp, Dan Fogler, Jesse Tyler Ferguson,
Sarah Saltzberg, and Deborah S. Craig in
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
(Photo © Joe Schuyler)
Quick, count on your fingers -- one hand might suffice -- the shows you've seen that were so enchanting, you savored every moment and prayed that the curtain call would never come. Now get ready for another: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which recently debuted at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires.

The project's etymology is impressive. The musical germinated from a concept by Rebecca Feldman, who includes among her New York credits shows in "dozens of downtown firetraps." C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, a show that she put on with the improvisational group the Farm, included cast member Sarah Saltzberg, who happens to nanny for Wendy Wasserstein, who hooked Feldman up with the Tony Award winning composer/lyricist William Finn. He in turn alerted BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd (a genius at musical midwifery) and also enlisted fellow NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program faculty member Rachel Sheinkin to flesh out the book. The next step was a BSC workshop in January, where several of the principals had a chance to help develop their own parts and a winning show coalesced. Now the whole thing clicks and hums -- and surprises -- like an especially ingenious cuckoo clock.

As the 2002 documentary Spellbound made abundantly clear, all is not fun and games in the world of competitive spelling -- especially not at the junior-high level, where the imperatives of puberty often intrude on the life of the mind. In Spelling Bee, past champion Tripp Barrington (cockily played by Robb Sapp) learns this the hard way when intrusive thoughts wrench his focus from the word at hand -- a very funny, pointed word that gives rise to a unique song, "My Unfortunate Erection."

Every word is well chosen in these rounds of elimination, including a few doozies designed to weed out the audience members who are chosen pre-show to compete. (It's unclear what it takes to get a slot: Do you have to stand around spouting terms like "sesquipedalian?") The civilians are even enfolded into a choreographed dance number before they're dispatched one by one with a tender chorus of "Goodbye, you were good but not good enough" and enfolded in the brawny arms of the "Comfort Counselor" (dynamite-voiced Derrick Baskin), a street tough assigned to community service.

The "real" contenders -- adult actors who are brilliant at capturing the postures and tics of squirmy kids -- are a motley melange of misfits and strivers, and often a combination of both. Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre (the marvelous Sarah Saltzberg) gets her composite name from her two gay dads and her neuroses from their hothouse home-schooling. With lisp-inducing braces, braided hair, and a habit of clutching and twisting her tights, she engages in full facial spasms when trying to concentrate on a word. The poor kid's so far out there, she's practically an extraterrestrial.

Though seemingly normal and plucky, Olive Ostrovsky (Celia Keenan-Bolger) is revealed to have a few problems at home, such as a mother who has fled it in favor of enlightenment in India. Olive's wish-fulfillment anthem, "The I Love You Song," is a heartbreaker. The offspring of hippies, Leaf Coneybear (an engaging and believable Jesse Tyler Ferguson) is borderline eccentric -- he sports a home-made cape -- and is convinced "I'm Not That Smart." As Asian-American overachiever Gramercy Park ("I Speak Six Languages"), Deborah S. Craig manages to convey blasé superiority without appearing bratty.

The ultimate weirdo is chubby William Barfee, who -- as the smarmy bee MC Rona Janet (Lisa Howard) informs us -- suffers from "a rare mucous membrane disorder" and, in a pinch, uses an unusual mnemonic device that he calls "Magic Foot." Actor Dan Fogler, his shirt half-tucked into gray Bermuda shorts and his curly hair side-parted in a Freddie Bartholomew bob, keeps his lower lip set in a perma-pout as he asserts his intellectual supremacy in a series of Randy Newman-style blues riffs. He's a hoot and irresistible, as is the entire show. If two hours of solid laughter strikes you as a worthwhile prospect, rush out to the Berkshires -- or pray that this utterly perfect production will soon make it to Manhattan.

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