Your word is simplicity." "Could you define that, please?" "Simplicity: A musical play whose virtues are charmingly modest rather than deafeningly in-your-face." "Could you use the word in a sentence, please?" "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is beguiling audiences at the Fox, is the essence of theatrical simplicity."
As if you haven't heard that already. Since arriving in town last week, this captivating entertainment has cast a spell over its audiences. The word-of-mouth has been terrific; the consensus unanimous. It doesn't really matter which eager student finally wins the Putnam County bee; everyone who attends this show is a winner.
Set in a junior high school gymnasium and, eventually, in the minds of its young contestants Spelling Bee is as cleanly and transparently structured as a toy built from an Erector set. At the outset we meet our contestants. To add to the bonhomie that permeates the gym, the show incorporates local contestants into the mix. While they're onstage the evening's format is hilariously established: 1) The contestant is assigned a word. 2) The speller then requests the definition, which is almost always unexpectedly amusing. 3) The speller next requests that the word be used in a sentence, which leads to still more humor. Once we understand the grid, the locals are sent packing and the real competition gets under way.
Anyone who fondly recalls that now-quaint era of book musicals when characters were allowed to speak or even better, not speak will revel in this show. In Spelling Bee the accent is on silence. This is not a through-sung musical that carpets the stage with endless song. Nor is the piece constantly underscored so that even when the actors aren't singing, their performances still must keep pace with relentless music. The format here you talk, then you sing (and sometimes even dance), then the music stops and you talk again is so refreshingly old-fashioned as to seem downright revolutionary.
Of course it's not revolutionary. The show is actually remindful of all kinds of plays and movies that have preceded it. At the outset, when we meet the bee's still-living-in-the-past hostess, former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (perfectly enacted by Sally Wilfert, as is every role), there's a sense that we're headed into that mean-spirited domain of local beauty pageants that Michael Ritchie satirized so deftly in Smile. But once the bee begins, and we meet the contestants from local elementary and middle schools, sincerity supersedes satire. Now we enter the hopeful world of A Chorus Line. Here the white line has been replaced by bench risers, but the aspirations are the same. At one point, as the spellers are singing to themselves, "I knew that word," you can hear echoes of chorus kids imploring, "I hope I get it." But by evening's end even the foolproof A Chorus Line has been cast aside, this time for the pleasant homilies about winning that made The Bad News Bears feel-good fun. This is an eclectic musical, to be sure, but none the less delightful for it. Besides, it has unique challenges all its own. (As spellers are eliminated and the stage grows emptier, how do you continue to fill that stage with song?)
Ultimately the show becomes about something larger than the desire to entertain. Perhaps its ambitions are best crystallized in William Finn's tender song "My Friend, the Dictionary," which is sung by a hopeful young contestant who cannot afford the entry fee but who personifies an innocent love of learning that permeates this enchanting microcosm of a shifting America.
Finally, a note of appreciation to the Fox Theatre management, which, without fanfare, alters its ticket prices for every show. If a musical costs less to bring to town, the Fox drops the prices. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels had a top of $66; The Light in the Piazza and Edward Scissorhands were each $60. Tickets for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee start at $15 and top out at $53. That's some good deal.