If you're a good speller, have I got the show for you. The ginchy gimmick in the hit Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, playing through Sunday at the Majestic Theater, is the "casting" of four audience members at each performance. If you're picked, you spend about an hour onstage alongside the cast of six young adult actors who play junior high kids in the mock spell-off. You get to sing and dance with the ensemble. Then, all by yourself, you step up to the mic, and Vice Principal Planch (played here by actor James Kall) gives you a big word to spell, just like in a real bee. You can ask for definitions and to have it used in a sentence. It's scary-fun and hilarious to watch.
At last night's opening performance of the Broadway tour of Bee, the youngest of the four civilians plucked from the audience did something few grown-ups can: He got an impossible word to spell, and he got it right.
Ten-year-old Jackson Buell, a fifth-grader at St. Rita School in Dallas, was handed a ringer -- C-O-W -- early in the show. He asked for a definition: "A cow." Used in a sentence: "Spell 'cow.'"
That's how they fix it. For a few rounds, the volunteer spellers get words like "jihad" and "Mexicans," while the fictional characters -- Leaf the hippie kid, William the adenoidal nerd, Marcy the perfect genius and others -- are torturing themselves through "crepuscule" and "boanthropy." When it's time for the non-professionals to get off the stage so the plot can progress, they're given something wildly unspellable. The bell rings, the comfort counselor, Mr. Mahoney (actor Alan H. Green), gives you a hug and a juice box, everyone sings the "Goodbye Song," and you're sent back to your seat in the theater.
He lasted longer than the other three civilians (all adults). What was supposed to be his final word was an obscure 11-letter whaling term. Or so they said. I won't reveal what it is, in case they use it in the show again. Confident and remarkably poised on the big stage under the hot lights, Jackson ripped right through it. Mr. Planch declared it correct, and the audience went nuts clapping and whistling for the young fella.
Jackson had to be called back to the mike to spell again, of course, because the show must go on. So the last word he got was some mega-syllabic medical term. Ding went the bell. Jackson was out. But he received a huge ovation on his exit, and his grace under pressure made a good show even better. Well done, young man. Fast—forward about six years, and we bet he'll do just fine on the verbal portion of the SATs. After the show, I asked him if he'd just lucked out on the spelling.
"No, I knew that word," he said. Wow.
As for the show, whether you can spell or not, it's terrific fun. Composer William Finn's music is charming, tuneful and just a little bit bawdy (there's one song about puberty that mentions things young Jackson might have found embarrassing to hear mentioned in public). The performers are as strong as their Broadway predecessors. Some of them came on tour straight out of the Broadway replacement cast. For a little show with a small cast, it filled the Majestic stage with big voices, smart comedy and quirky-cute choreography.
I was surprised and chagrined to see that the house was only three-quarters full. This show was sold out in New York for more than a year, and it's several stripes better than most of the musicals that make their way here on tour. Did you suffer through Disney's On the Record?
If you're game, you should try to be a volunteer speller. I had my shot at it in New York when the show was in previews. Here's my account of my spell Off-Broadway that ran in the paper version of Unfair Park. Damn those Yiddish juggling terms. --Elaine Liner