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Perfect spelling: who wants to see a musical about a spelling bee? When it comes from out musical comedy maven William Finn, you do.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee * Music and lyrics by William Finn * Book by Rachel Sheinkin * Directed by James Lapine * Second Stage Theatre, New York City (through March 20)

Anyone who saw the hit documentary Spellbound knows what a terrific dramatic form the spelling bee is--it's the ultimate revenge-of-the-nerds fantasy. And fans of William Finn, composer of Falsettos and other fast, funny musicals, know he's good at writing songs for smart, awkward kids. Put the two together, and you get The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, one of the smash hits of the New York theater season, now off-Broadway and inevitably headed for a Broadway run.

Based on C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, a 2002 play created by some of the participants here, the musical taps three fertile veins of comedy. First, there's the motley crew of spellers with their nervous tics, among them the chubby, slobby know-it-all (Dan Fogler), the Korean overachiever (Deborah Craig), the ego-deficient kid from the large hippie family (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and the lisping rad-grrrl with two gay daddies (Sarah Saltzberg). Words that show up in spelling bees are often absurdly arcane, and when contestants ask to hear them used in a sentence, it's the perfect setup for incongruously adult punch lines. Use "raconteur" in a sentence? "The famed British playwright Joe Orton was considered quite the raconteur before being bludgeoned to death by his bald lover." On top of that, four audience members are called onstage to participate, and the unscripted element gives the show a fun, unpredictable edge.

Finn's songs supply clever brainy-kidspeak without pulling focus from the drama. The score is almost too modest: The closest firing to a breakout number is "Chip's Lament"--a.k.a. "My Unfortunate Erection"--sung by the pubescent champ whose hormones mar his concentration. But as staged by Finn's longtime collaborator James Lapine with his customary clarity and visual inventiveness, the show steers clear of the cliches that litter way too many musicals, and that's what makes it a winner.

Shewey is the author of the biography Sam Shepard.
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Author:Shewey, Don
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Mar 29, 2005
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