Literally, theater critics seldom know of what they speak. We haven’t been Shakespearean kings, faded Southern belles, dying salesmen or witches, wicked or winsome. We’re guessing about the honesty of almost every comic or dramatic situation, based on conditions in our own lives.
But I can swear to you, as the 1967 spelling champion of Florence L. Walther School – later tragically defeated in the Burlington County (N.J.) contest – that “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” gets to the very heart of the matter.
This amiable musical was conceived by Rebecca Feldman and written by Rachel Sheinken (book) and William Finn (music and lyrics), all of whom were a long way from middle school. (Jay Reiss contributed additional material.)
Yet they knew what it’s like to be an outsider at that age, desperate for acceptance and a chance to prove excellence comes in all kinds of packages – not that I remember cheerleaders, student body presidents or football players being in awe of orthographic skills.
All six serious contestants, each deftly played in Theatre Charlotte’s version, represent types that other kids might find odd. (Four audience members also compete, adding to the feel of spontaneity.)
Chip (Ryan Deal) has been pole axed by puberty. Leaf (Joe McCourt), the wifty product of hippie parents, seems to be taken over by aliens each time he spells a word. Marcy (Kayla Piscatelli), who speaks six languages, was probably overachieving while she teethed.
Mouth-breathing William Barfee (Jeremy Shane) comes off as eccentric and arrogant, instead of shy and anxious. Olive (Cassandra Howley Wood), who does comes off as shy and anxious, can barely speak up. And Logainne (Chesson Kusterer) has two gay dads who pressure her beyond reason.
The strangest thing is that all of them appeal to us in some way, overtly or not. The same holds true for the contest administrators: perky Rona Lisa (Megan Midkiff), dryly volcanic Douglas (John West) and Mitch (Tyler Smith), an unlikely counselor who hands out hugs and apple juice to losers.
The creators want us to embrace all these flawed people, even William (played with fine adenoidal vigor by Shane), and director Dennis Delamar is careful never to let the play seem cruel or condescending.
Yet the consistently funny script is frank from start to finish. The kids can’t convince themselves they’re winners just for being here, and their sorrow is real sorrow: To fall short again could cement their status as a failure in their friends’ eyes. (Although Jesus makes a cameo appearance to remind us that he never cares who wins a competition. All athletes, please take heed.)
They learn that life is random and frequently unfair, a sentiment expressed in a song with the refrain “Life is pandemonium” – a word coined by John Milton for the capital of Hell in “Paradise Lost.”
Best of all, they learn that “words in the dictionary are the friends I’ll have forever,” a sentiment expressed half-jokingly in a song but meant to be taken for truth. Lonely as these kids may be now, they have the power to express themselves, and that power will never let them down. The show is ultimately a tribute to language: The words they use may be esoteric or abstruse, but they can also be empowering someday.