What might Abraham Lincoln say if he knew that almost 150 years after his death, an actor would be standing in the very same room where John Wilkes Booth assassinated a president, singing a musical number about an unwanted erection?
To obsess over unfortunately public protuberances, though, is to do a disservice to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the gently risqué and mostly charming musical about a bunch of misfit tween spellers currently playing at Ford’s Theatre. The show, which debuted ten years ago, came through the National Theatre in 2007 and had a run at Dupont’s Keegan Theatre in 2011, during which time most of the topical jokes revolved around Anthony Weiner and his own unfortunately public display of exuberance.
Ford’s current production, directed by Peter Flynn, doesn’t do anything to reinvent the tried-and-tested formula of the show, but it does prove that a wealth of TV shows such as Glee and The Big Bang Theory haven’t yet exhausted our desire to see nerds triumph. Ably leading the pack is Rachel Zampelli as Rona Lisa Perretti, a real-estate agent and former spelling champ who acts as host alongside the emotionally disturbed vice principal Douglas Panch (Matthew A. Anderson).
Among the spellers are civil-rights advocate Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Kristen Garaffo), whose unfortunate name comes from her two overbearing gay dads; Olive Ostrovsky (Caroyn Agan), whose father neglects her and whose mother is on an ashram in India; Leaf Coneybear (Nickolas Vaughan), whose whole family tells him repeatedly that he’s an idiot; and William Barfée (Vishal Vaidya), whose entire life has been spent telling people his name isn’t pronounced “barfy.” There’s also Chip Tolentino (Vincent Kempski), whose distracted thoughts about a fellow spellers’ sister leads to his premature ejection from the contest and the aforementioned song, “Chip’s Lament.”
The show’s ingenious use of audience interaction has always been one of its strongest qualities. Three theatergoers, picked before the show starts, join the spellers onstage as bee participants, prompting improvised digs at their appearance by VP Panch. (On press night, Anderson announced that one such speller said he was joining the Peace Corps, because “when you think gentle white guy, you think me.”)
These moments of unpredictability offer some respite from the otherwise mostly rote musical numbers by William Finn (the book is by Rachel Sheinkin). An early ensemble song, “Pandemonium,” is suitably scattered, although “Magic Foot,” an ode to Barfée’s atypical method of spelling, ends with an ingenious tap display choreographed by Michael Bobbitt. The most charismatic solo number from a speller comes from Marcy Park (Felicia Curry), an overachiever who sleeps three hours a night and isn’t allowed to cry, but who has some truly spectacular gymnastic skills as a result.
Both Flynn and set designer Court Watson have fun with the Lincoln theme—there’s a sign for “Lincoln’s Waffle House” hanging from the ceiling, and several of the kids express their delight at spelling words onstage at the site of a successful presidential assassination. The production also gets a visual boost from costume designer Wade Laboissonniere (possibly a former speller), who gets to express the kids’ eccentricities through Boy Scout badges, boxy blazers, and two-tone denim.
The one problematic performance is Kevin McAllister’s Mitch Mahoney, a “comfort counselor” doing community service whose posturing feels almost offensively stereotypical throughout the first half of the play (predictably, his early aggression is softened by the charm of the spellers). McAllister is much less cliched during his double duty sporting an apron as Logainne’s less pushy dad. Still, as ten-year-old musicals go, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has managed to stay notably fresh, possibly thanks to its enduring celebration of individuality and sesquipedalian language in all their ungainly splendor.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is at Ford’s Theatre through May 17. Running time is about one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($18 to $67) are available at Ford’s Theatre’s website.