Farmer's Branch — In this century there have been more challenging, complex and funnier musicals than The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but I can’t think of one that brings as much sheer joy to the viewer. I suppose it depends on what motivates laughter for you—perhaps The Book of Mormon, Urinetown or Monty Python’s Spamalot (which beat Spelling Bee for the 2005 Best Musical Tony) might be funnier in different ways.
Unlike those other titles, Spelling Bee brings out the various kinds of laughter, from belly-laughs to the uncomfortable kind we get from remembering our own youth. It’s especially funny if you participated in a spelling bee or any kind of competition, like a talent show; and/or was an awkward child and had to live up to unreasonable parental expectation, or had embarrassing parents. Weren’t they all? Weren’t we all?
It’s funny because it’s painfully true. Only cleverer, because in this case William Finn wrote the music and lyrics, to a book by Rachel Sheinkin, with additional material by Jay Reiss. The music in your own childhood soundtrack was never as tuneful as Finn’s, who has filled this musical with memorable, witty songs.
The current production of Spelling Bee at the Firehouse Theatre in Farmer’s Branch is getting attention because the theater’s artistic director, Derek Whitener, was attacked Saturday night in a Target parking lot in Dallas. He also plays Leaf Coneybear in the show and is the costume designer. Whitener is recovering in ICU at Baylor Medical Center. The Sunday matinee on Jan. 15 was canceled, and for the final weekend, Jan. 19-22, Spencer Baker will take over the role.
I caught the show, which is directed by Ben Phillips, on Thursday, Jan. 12. I haven’t seen many shows at the Firehouse. It’s a community theater that pays stipends to directors, designers, musicians, production crew and actors. (Whitener has told me they are working on increasing their pay.)
Spelling Bee makes a case for Firehouse being on the level of some of the bigger budget community theaters in town; it’s a much stronger production than the group’s regional premiere of Billy Elliot last year. For a theater with a musical-heavy season, it’s refreshing that they use live musicians and not canned tracks. Here, musical director Rebecca Lowrey, playing keyboards on the stage level, leads a small combo on a second level above the stage (Andrew Friedrich on keys, Randy Linberg on drums, Chase Fowler or Alison Suding on woodwinds).
The musical gives us the title event in a school gymnasium, with former Spelling Bee also-ran Rona Lisa Peretti (Noelle Mason) and former assistant principal Douglas Panch (Ben Phillips) calling the words. The contestants are Boy Scout Chip Tolentino (Alex Heika); Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Leah Clark), who has two dads with high expectations; spaz Leaf Coneybear (Spencer Baker in the final weekend); perfectionist Marcy Park (Alexandra Cassens); and weirdo William Barfée (Clint Gilbert), whose name is constantly mispronounced (it rhymes with “parfait”). Gruff Mitch Mahoney (Jason Phillip Solís) is fulfilling community service by keeping everyone in line.
Each of the kids has quirks, to say the least, and four members of the audience are called up to participate. (If you’re called, don’t worry, it looks pretty harmless.)
The fun of this show is that, like at an actual Spelling Bee, there is a lot of improvisation. Much of what’s scripted is already funny—especially Panch’s definitions for the words. The show is built to take topical and local references (“did you know this gymnasium used to be a firehouse?”), and here, the funniest new jokes venture into the political—references to the Moscow Ritz Carlton and Democratic flip-flopping land sharply.
Mason and Phillips make an ace comedy team, and the five actors playing the children are all delightfully outsized without going too far, and bring something new to their portrayals. Gilbert’s Barfée is the funniest I’ve seen. Whitener’s Leaf was infectiously and lovably goofy. Cassens’ Marcy is believably down-to-business but ready to break free from expectations, and Clayton’s Olive is empathetic and worth rooting for. The biggest complaint is that Clark’s lisp isn’t pronounced enough, which makes the word “sluice” less funny when it is called for her.
No pressure on Spencer Baker as he steps into Whitener’s roller shoes in the final weekend, but he’s joining a company that’s on its toes.
» Click here to contribute to Whitener’s GoFundMe campaign, which as of this posting is nearing the $70,000 mark.
» Proceeds from this weekend's performances will go to the campaign.
» The suspects in Whitener’s attack have been captured on video, released by the Dallas Police Department. There is a $5,000 reward for information that leads to their arrest. You can see more here.