The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is almost too much title for a wispy little musical that hangs on the horns of a dichotomy. Are we to regard a high-school spelling bee as a marathon made of a molehill for weird contestants, or does a passion for orthography predicate a laudable love of language and civilized intercourse? “We are the slightest bit bizarre” sings an obese, hysterical youth who spells with his feet; “It’s a very big / Very fraught—/ Simple but it’s not— / It’s a very big undertaking,” sing three of the contestants and one adult adjudicator. Throughout, the tone is one of having it both ways, as the proceedings lurch in bipolarity.
Conceived by a New York improv comic, then developed as a musical by the Barrington Stage Company of Sheffield, Massachusetts, it has a book by Rachel Sheinkin that has C-U-T-E emblazoned on its brow, and music and lyrics by William Finn, who scored with his Falsettos musicals in which the subject, AIDS, largely carried the shows. Here, where that task falls to the music and lyrics, Finn, as ever since, does less well. There are funny bits off and on, but the music is low-serviceable, only rarely climbing into high-serviceable and never beyond.
In an amiable décor by Beowulf Boritt, with winsome choreography by Dan Knechtges, and under the savvy direction of James Lapine, a skilled cast of nine gives its all—I especially liked Deborah S. Craig and Celia Keenan-Bolger. Three carefully prescreened volunteers from the audience are added, with no danger of one of them proving a champion speller. Mildly amused as we are, we cannot conquer the feeling that this is a country-mouse show dwindling among city rodents.