Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Play a Day: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (BONUS)

Cleveland Play House
This week, in addition to reading a lot of plays, I am seeing a lot of plays. Tonight I took my daughter to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Cleveland Play House.

The 2002 film Spellbound (no association) is a documentary about the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Featured are the personal stories of the participants, who you might imagine from their achievement were not typical young people. In addition to having above-average intelligence and mental acuity, several are first- or second-generation immigrants. It is a very moving film, and was even nominated for an Academy-Award.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee premiered in 2005, following a trend started by Urinetown for Broadway producers to take risks on "quirky" material that used to get no further than Off-Broadway, like Avenue Q and Spamalot.

When I first heard about the concept, developed so soon after the aforementioned film, I was concerned. Spellbound is a celebration of difference, surely a musical comedy would be about mocking difference. And I'm not entirely wrong. Ha ha, one of these spelling bee participants has two daddies! One is an entirely unselfconscious, home-schooled savant! One is (really?) an over-achieving Asian-American!

#CPHPutnam
Last year we took the kids to the all-girls school, where the wife is an English teacher, for their production. I was delighted by the performances, enjoyed the songs, and generally brought around to the musical. This musical, too, is a celebration of difference. I think. Only it has jokes.

(Right: Pre-show fun in the lobby. She got “comedy.” I got “cymotrichous.”)

The production at Cleveland Play House features a diverse company, and this plays to the show's current strength and popularity, in high schools (where "Chip's Lament" is often performed with lyrics altered without permission,) amateur and professional houses. It's a modern musical which reflects contemporary Middle-American society. Yes, it pokes fun. But it does not judge. And ultimately it's an empowering story about kids deciding how they are going to fit in the world.

Cleveland Play House presents "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" in the Allen Theatre through May 6, 2018.

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