Any old-time press agent worth his commission would know exactly how to tout Beck Center's sherbet-hued, all-singing, all-dancing production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. We envision a banner, drawn in crayon, proclaiming the William Finn/Rachel Sheinkin musical the rambunctious love child of A Chorus Line and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.,/p>
Although there are no direct biological links to those smashes, the show mischievously combines their DNA, with hyperactive young adults popping with musical-comedy hormones and feigning the goofy tribulations of adolescence.
They put their vulnerable souls on the line to grab that coveted prize — not a part in a Broadway show, but rather the much-desired spelling-bee trophy. Following the Greek unities and Chorus Line, not necessarily in that order, it takes place during the actual unfolding of a spelling bee.
The show uses Freudian monologues and flashbacks on subjects like having two dads, uncontrollable erections and the amorous yearnings of a balding vice principal. In an age of chandelier and helicopter epics, this exquisitely crafted and thought-provoking whimsy has the added bonus of being small enough not to annihilate the resources of modest theater companies.
Sheinkin's intelligent book is a mosaic of insightful grotesqueries like those found in works of comic-strip writers ranging from Charles Addams to Gary Larson. One of the book's greatest assets is the ingenious way it uses members of the audience as participants in the spelling bee.
Composer-lyricist Finn, who bestowed upon the universe the immortal "Four Jews in a Room Bitching" in March of the Falsettos, combines the vaudeville vivacity of Kander and Ebb with a naughty variation on the cerebral playfulness of Sondheim.
When an ardent young man with the hots for another contestant's sister massacres a word and is fated to sell candy for the PTA, he tearfully sings, "It will ruin your complexion, all because of my unfortunate erection."
The Beck production is every bit as joyful and youthful as the material. To underline this, there's a lobby photo display of the actors juxtaposed with images of themselves at the actual age of their character in the show.
Performances that stand out are Timothy Allen's Leaf Coneybear, dressed in what looks like a patchwork quilt, loosely ambling across the stage like Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow; Patrick Ciamacco's William Barfee, acting like a junior-high Captain Bligh leading a chorus line in tribute to his magic spelling foot; and Tricia Bestic's Rona Lisa Peretti, with varnished '60s hair, as the adult former spelling champion wistfully reliving her glory days.
Director Scott Spence cheerfully preserves the show's diamond-like amiability. It's rare when one can feast on a picnic of musical delights while learning how to spell an assortment of South American rodents.