In the wacky world of theater, where every show that makes it big has surely taken a twisted path to a Broadway audience, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee still stands out for its convoluted evolution.
It began life as a straight show conceived by Rebecca Feldman called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, a comedy about a small-town spelling bee that was created (and performed) mostly with improv. One of the actresses was the nanny for playwright Wendy Wasserstein's daughter. Wasserstein saw the show (believe me, when you find a babysitter you like, you'll do anything to keep her) and loved it. She told her friend, composer and lyricist William Finn that he should develop the show further. (Wasserstein, sadly, was seriously ill at the time and died of lymphoma only a year later.)
Finn and book-writer Rachel Sheinkin turned the material into a one-act musical -- with additional material by Jay Reiss -- that hit Broadway in 2005 and proved a huge success.
Whew! That's a lot of names (a couple of them high-powered) behind a sweet, fluffy little whatnot of a musical. But if they were giving out awards for charm it would be a Putnam County sweep. Finn (the Tony Award-winning creator of Falsettos) possesses the unique ability to create theatrical worlds that can be lushly sentimental without ever once turning syrupy. By rights, Putnam County -- which is, after all, about six nerdy kids trying to win love from an uncaring world -- should make your toes curl. But Finn and Sheinkin, mostly through the use of abundant humor, keep the show grounded.
In a new Theatre Factory production, director/choreographer Scott P. Calhoon and music director Janelle Garoff have made a big part of their job considerably easier by casting performers with strong voices. Kristin S. Buccilli and Matt Lamb lead a powerful vocal ensemble, and when Buccilli, Alyssa Bruno and Josh List join together on "The I Love You Song," the effect is quite moving.
On the comedy side, things are a little less successful. Maybe because it was opening night, I was seeing too many disconnected gags and shtick, and not enough character-based humor. And how did the two gay dads get turned into 1960s-era fag jokes? A little more truth in the playing and a lot more alacrity in the pace, and this whole thing could end well.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through Oct. 10. The Theatre Factory, Cavitt Avenue and Third Street, Trafford. 412-374-9200.