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In a word, 'Spelling' is marvelous

SHEFFIELD -- There can't be a better theater company housed in a high school than Barrington Stage Company. Julianne Boyd has established the theater as the preeminient place in Massachusetts for the production of musicals, so where better to mount the world premiere of a musical that's actually set in a high school?

And what a show it is. "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" has everything a rollicking musical should have: wit and grace, heart and soul, charm and a bit of a bite. None of these attributes will be surprising to fans of William Finn ("Falsettos," "Elegies"), who wrote the music and lyrics. What is something of a surprise, though, is that the songs are really the sidekicks to the delightful book by Rachel Sheinkin, a Brooklyn playwright and librettist, whose crisp writing and wide-ranging humor keep the proceedings lithe and lively.

As you can guess from the title, the musical concerns the competitive world of school spelling bees, as six enormously talented actors do battle with one another, their own adolescent demons, and spellers from the audience.

Sheinkin is politically incorrect enough to have fun with brainiac stereotypes -- the lispers and the cross-eyed, the boy who's done in by his erection and the fat kid who knows he's the smartest of the bunch ("I'm the Yankees, not the Red Sox"). At the same time, her fondness for each character is so obvious that it's hard to imagine many will be offended at touches such as the lisping girl, Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre, getting the word "cystitis."

And how can you be offended when the show is so marvelously executed? The all-adult cast is letter-perfect, but Dan Fogler as the weighty William Barfee is hysterical, dancing out each word he spells and reminding us of kids we used to love to hate.

Directors Michael Unger and Rebecca Feldman use the company's Stage II as a transformed gym. The students pull at their unfashionable stockings or their hair trying to come up with the right spelling, but Finn's and Sheinkin's sympathies are with them. A girl is given "chimera" to spell, which leads to a touching song about the love she imagines from her self-centered parents.

Finn's music, which works seamlessly with the book, is his usual mix of Stephen Sondheim and Randy Newman, with big up-tempo numbers like "Pandemonium" that allow the whole cast to go a little crazy, as well as the pretty but sad "The I Love You Song."

"Spelling Bee" has its eyes on a bigger stage in New York -- hence the unneeded miking, which resulted in problems here. If it doesn't find an immediate home in New York, perhaps an enterprising producer could bring it to Boston to accompany the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Falsettos" next season.

In any case, we haven't heard the last from William Barfee and company. They're likely to be casting their spell, sans spell-check, for years to come.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Musical by William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book).
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman.
Directed by: Michael Unger and Feldman.
Choreography, Dan Knechtges.
Set, Beowulf Boritt. Costumes, Jen Caprio. Lights, Tyler Micoleau. Sound, Randy Hansen.
At: Barrington Stage Company, Stage II, through Aug. 1. 413-528-8888.

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