From the Ziegfeld Follies, which buoyed Broadway's spirits during the Great Depression, through the British Invasion of my 1980s upbringing, to today's mega-hit Hamilton, musical theater has played a key role in shaping American popular culture for over a century. So who doesn't love a musical? Prolific producer Beth Marshall, for one, which is ironic because she's currently presenting the Tony-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Garden Theatre.
Why would someone best known for dark, socially aware dramas like The Whale, Doubt and 33 Variations want to mount her company's first-ever published musical?
"As a producer, I'm in a place where I really want to challenge myself with larger budgets and bigger-scale production values. That's the part of musical producing that excites me," Marshall explained to me in an interview last month. "As an actor and a director, there's work that I just don't get excited about, and I won't do. But as a producer, if it's challenging to me and the art of producing, I look at it and go 'OK.'"
With the show's "next-level" budget came the opportunity to increase compensation for her cast and crew, as well as build a financial cushion so her company can afford to do less commercial work in future seasons. The show also afforded an opportunity for Kenny Howard – a Tony-winning producer and director of Bat Boy, Heathers, Cabaret and The Lion Queen – to direct for Marshall's company, after having helmed Beth herself onstage in Wanzie's Ladies of Eola Heights plays.
After nearly a decade of bringing edgy art to Mayberry-esque Winter Garden, Marshall said she picked Putnam as her first musical production "because it's a true ensemble piece, and it's character-driven." The show satirically depicts the small-town competition, with all the awkward tween contestants played by either adult actors or preselected audience members. William Finn's songs are breezily buoyant, even if most don't lodge in your brain, and Rachel Sheinkin's book makes each character endearingly unique. But it's the actors who make Spelling Bee sink or swim, and this ensemble capture the show's slyly silly spirit equally as well as the original New York cast I saw at Circle in the Square a dozen years ago.
Take Kit Cleto as competitor William Barfee, for example: His "magic foot" gyrations are as entertainingly absurd as Dan Fogler's (who won a Tony for creating the role long before becoming a big-screen star in Fantastic Beasts), but Cleto finds a tortured dignity in the sinusitus-stricken student that's all his own. Likewise, Eric Desnoyers brings an eccentric physicality to Leaf Coneybear; Ricky Cona inhabits Chip Tolentino with the abrasive egotism of an erection-plagued Boy Scout; and Kayla Alvarez's dictionary-loving Olive Ostrovsky is so adorably innocent you'll want to adopt her away from her absentee parents. In the "adult" roles, Anachebe Asomugha is intimidating yet tender-hearted as ex-con Mitch Mahoney, always handy with a hug and a juice box for every loser; and Jeff Lindberg's increasingly unhinged Vice Principal Panch with Rebecca Fisher's former champion Rona Lisa Peretti make marvelously madcap moderators.
Though it has a big budget by Marshall's usual standards, this Spelling Bee wisely avoids being too slick, instead embracing a charmingly handmade aesthetic. A set of cafetorium bleachers by Daniel Cooksley (designed with Marshall and Howard) is enlivened by Amy Hadley's colorful lighting. Together they set the backdrop for Kyla Swanberg's carefully observed costumes, which instantly communicate their wearers' peculiarities; Coneybear's crazy-quilt pants alone are practically their own one-man show. Live accompaniment is provided by master pianist Julian Bond, with select numbers choreographed by Dion Leonhard, and vocal coach Priscilla Bagley has done what I once thought impossible: stripped her singers of their well-trained vibratos in favor of appropriately immature tones that blend beautifully during songs like "Goodbye," "The I Love You Song" and the catchy title tune.
Summing up Spelling Bee's appeal, Marshall says, "Unlike a lot of musicals, it doesn't try to go for something and miss; it goes for exactly what it's going for, and that's it. It's not major depth, but it's fun and a good time." While I certainly agree that it's a good (even great) time, I have to quibble with her dismissal of its depth, especially with the timely tweaks Howard and company have made to the dialogue. The script has always had a progressive subtext about embracing diversity and overcoming adversity, but this production is peppered with offhanded topical references – including shoutouts to Jeff Sessions, Zika and the Mexican wall – that emphasize the contemporary context, making loser Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Savannah Simerly) seem like an explicit stand-in for Hillary Clinton. Howard has also inserted "Easter Egg" references to other Broadway shows, resulting in a multilayered confection that may look light as air, but that conceals substance beneath the surface.