The production of “William Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” on Sunday, April 17, could be summed up in one word, and that word is “anarchic.” This musical is not one in which you are expected to sit, clap at the appropriate times, and maybe get a few laughs in. This production was much more freeform. Audience members were invited to participate by signing up ahead of time—this critic’s batch was eliminated relatively quickly, but actual spelling bee champions have participated in the show and lasted as many as 14 rounds; most of the jokes—indeed, much of the script—was flexible and ad-libbed; and characters swore, made crude jokes, and generally did not portray themselves as the barely-tweens they were supposed to be.
Usually, this sort of approach to comedy can result in a rocketship full of laughs with the potential for an actor or an audience member to steal the show with a well-timed quip.
But, as anyone who takes a single class in economics knows, high reward comes with a high risk sometimes, and this production was no different. The audience members for this particular performance corpsed—that is to say, broke character by laughing—more than Jimmy Fallon ever did in his SNL days and ruined a joke of having a man with silver hair be treated like a ten-year-old. The jokes, most of which were improvised, hit the wrong notes in terms of tone and subject matter: generally, it seemed that the audience did not laugh so much at the content as the fact that they had a personal connection to whomever was saying the lines, creating an insider’s club feel that made this critic feel adrift, wondering why I was not laughing when almost everyone else was doubled over. The jokes also fell into the realm of “quippery,” which is difficult to pull off under even the best circumstances, and with the sound in the Cloak Theatre being a bit of a variable, someone a few rows up would frequently burst out laughing at something that someone farther back barely caught.
Usually, this sort of problem in musicals gets made up for when the talking stops and the music gets going, but Finn is not exactly a songwriter par excellence. Numbers frequently seem to bleed into being rather than arising naturally from the plot; the songs all felt at least a few minutes too long; and the melodies and arrangements never seemed to soar the way they needed to.
These problems were not the fault of the musicians or the actors, especially not the latter, who had several exciting standouts. In particular, freshman Eddie Hood embodied a carefree attitude that was surprisingly grounding as Leaf Coneybear, never getting too lost in what would be a one-note character for other actors, and sophomore Jordan Ross stole the show as William Barfree, taking a character that at first made one think of Ted Cruz and revealing him to be closer to an everyman than meets the eye. The ensemble was a rewarding one who will do well in future productions. But, for this particular spelling bee, it is sad to say no matter how many definitions one asks for, the production will not become any clearer.