In full disclosure of the circumstances that brought me to witness the University of Tennessee Theatre's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Carousel Theatre, I had to be dragged. I'd assumed it was one of those quaint nostalgia pieces about simple folk, engineered to maximize that warm abdominal glow many require when they buy a ticket to see a play. I've never been tempted by a real spelling bee, and a scripted one would seem to offer no improvement. This production is, I assumed, part of Clarence Brown's apology to its well-heeled conservative patrons who complained about all that uncomfortably edgy Eastern European topless stuff CBT was producing back in the '90s.
I was in error. It's true enough that the play is literally about a spelling bee. The play, one long act without an intermission, opens with the opening of the spelling bee, and closes with the climactic conclusion of it, and the main action is ostensibly in a Putnam County auditorium. But partly through the discursions of flashbacks and fantasies, the characters include an ex-con, a couple of gay parents, a pilgrim to an Indian ashram, six extremely eccentric teenagers, four good-humored audience members, and Jesus Christ Himself. And most of them can sing.
The play's actually a relatively recent Broadway hit, newer than some of the road shows that arrive in town. Written by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin, it opened in 2005, won a couple of Tonys, including one for Best Book, and ran for almost three years.
There are nine Putnam Counties in America, and we gather by its references to parochial schools and bat mitzvahs this is more likely to be the one in New York than the one in Tennessee, but the characters are universal. If you, sometime between the ages of 12 and 20, didn't know at least five of the six main contestants, you weren't paying attention. There's the gonzo savant, Coneybear, who's more or less an Irish setter who can spell; the high-strung Eagle Scout, Chip; the wistful ingenue, Olive; the glittering ice queen, Marcy; the nervous obsessive Logainne; and the compulsive genius-nerd, Barfee.
These six classic varieties of the American Nerd, so sharply delineated, make good spelling seem akin to neurosis.
This is a modern-style Broadway musical, not much like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, maybe, but not so different from, say, Rent: realistic situations combining a little of the traditional heartwarming stuff with sexual innuendo (though not much—these are middle-school kids), mild sacrilege, and a whiff of existential doubt. The luck of the draw, offering easy and extremely difficult words, convinces the chorus, "Life is random and unfair/Life is pandemonium/That's the reason we despair."
Take your kids, but be prepared for some moments of discomfort, as during the melancholy tune "My Unfortunate Erection." It's no Cole Porter, maybe, but it's pretty funny, and about half of the audience will sympathize.
The cast is dominated by UT students, most playing, for once, characters younger than they are. The main exception is faculty member and semipro singer Katy Wolfe Zahn, who's starred in several CBT musicals lately; she's our gracious, if sometimes harried, host.
The script allows for a wild range of broad interpretations, and this cast includes no dullards. For the ovation, the cast stood together, without distinction, appropriately. But a standout, from his first appearance, is Mark Gregory Rudy, who portrays Barfee, the allergy-challenged obsessive-compulsive geek who understands the words he spells. Rudy has learned an unusual facial stunt that, while subtle, causes ripples of recognition in the audience before he spelled a word.
Asides, whether inspired by characters' memories or imagination, allow for some brief breaks from the spelling drama—that's what brings Jesus into the room—and several actors perform more than one role. The transformation is never more surprising than in the case of Tramell Tillman, the stoic homey whose job is to escort losers offstage; more than once, Tillman is hardly recognizable when he puts on a jacket to become a frantic gay parent. He takes a turn as a soul singer in a fantasy sequence that includes a new version of "My Prayer." ("Don't cry in front of your brother/Don't embarrass your mother.")
The small live band, visible behind the stage, does its job well. At one point at the beginning, it was a trifle too loud—especially the drums—to hear some of the introductory words, but it passes. By the way, that is, according to the program, a local public-radio celebrity on keyboards: WUOT's morning announcer Melony Maness, who's also the play's musical director.
It's an audience-participation play. Four audience members are selected beforehand to join the actors on stage, and not just for a couple of minutes, with speaking roles spelling words in the spotlight—some words so difficult they're the equivalent of a cue to exit. You can make the play experience edgier for yourself by volunteering. The bashful may be advised to sit in the middle of a row toward the back. We enjoyed it almost as much.