“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is an odd little musical. The show grew out of an improv comedy show, and that’s where its heart still seems to be. In the current production at Bloomington Civic Theatre, director Joe Chvala played it mostly for laughs, which only emphasizes the shallowness of the show.
The book by Rachel Scheinkin uses the six participants in a school spelling bee to look at the struggles of adolescence. And there are plenty of good jokes, but mostly from the spelling bee itself: the words chosen, the definitions provided, and the weird ways the words are used in a sentence.
But the songs by William Finn, Tony winner for the excellent 1992 musical “Falsettos,” seem almost incidental to the story. They are not very musically, or lyrically, interesting, mainly just characters stepping forward and explaining themselves. They seem to be padding what would ideally be a Fringe-length show.
As choreographer, Chvala creates some hilarious bits, like a Busby Berkeley-esque production number involving shoes to the song, “Magic Feet.” (A participant shows how he spells out the words with his foot to visualize them.)
But things are often played too broadly. “Chip’s Lament,” about a boy’s uncontrollable erection, becomes a piece of shtick, rather than a heartfelt expression of teenage angst.
The second act is an improvement, in both the show and the production. The pace becomes less frantic, and the actors have more of a chance to connect with their characters and with the audience.
Among the cast, Andrew Newman is endearing as the goofball, and Hope Nordqust is effective as the angry overachiever.
The most notable performance is by Jill Iverson, as the lonely outsider. She provides a real moment of pathos and, with Andy Roemhildt’s nerd, forges a sweet romantic moment.
Nicholas Leeman, as the dweeb of an assistant principal who asks all the questions, is the center of the comedy, along with Colleen Somerville, as the host, whose asides about the quirky backgrounds of all the spellers add another layer of bright comedy.
Mention must also be made of Ed Gleeman’s eccentric costumes, which go a long way in creating the characters.
In the end, this is a funny and charming evening, if unnecessarily lightweight.
William Randall Beard writes about music and theater.