Tonight I went to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Paramount Theatre. Despite having one of the longest titles of any musical I've ever seen, it was quite the atypical musical experience.
The whole plot of the musical was basically, well, just what it sounds like--a spelling bee. That's pretty much it, nothing more, nothing less. Sure, they added a few musical numbers where we delved into the personal lives of these middle school-aged kids; amusing little ditties but merely accessories to the rest of the dialogue. The 2-hour production had no intermission, though an intermission-like scene was built into the show that gave the audience a break from the seriousness (and I use that in the loosest sense of the word) of the spelling bee.
Reading my recap thus far you might be led to believe it was a disappointing performance, but you'd be wrong. It was absolutely hilarious! Much credit for the comedic brilliance needs to be given to both the writers and equally the actors. A great deal of improvisation was involved in various parts of the show, including bringing four members of the audience on stage as additional spellers at the beginning of the show. (Those audience members were relatively quickly eliminated through the use of obscure or ridiculously impossible-to-spell words.) Rather than applause, laughter was the prevailing sentiment from the audience.
I considered whether this show would work better as a play than a musical, based on the relative unimportance of the musical numbers' contribution to the overall plot, but concluded that it's best as is. The music really is the glue that holds it all together. While it doesn't really add a lot to the overall picture, it's adds greatly to the structural foundation of the show.
As for my much awaited ratings...
Cast - 4 stars. A small, yet outstanding cast with great comedic talent.
Script - 5 stars. Inspired genius, and we'll give the credit for the improvised customizations here.
Technical - 3 stars. All you'd expect from a Broadway-caliber production, but nothing remarkable.
Music - 2 stars, and no discredit to the singers or musicians, all of whom were outstanding. I considered giving it 3 stars, but couldn't justify it. It's just not the focus of the show.
Overall - 4 stars. Worth seeing perhaps more than once, because I'd doubt it's ever quite the same show twice. Definitely an unconventional style of musical, but nothing wrong with that.
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