Ford’s Theatre isn’t the only place you can find “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” this month. In April alone, the chipper musical about angsty, lovable adolescents enduring a nerve-wracking contest is getting dozens of brand-new productions — high school, college and professional — according to the show’s licensing Web site.
This modest little musical is so foolproof you can almost say “The Bee” is “The Bee” is “The Bee.” This is at least the third professional staging in downtown Washington, and two big parts of the show work every time.
The first is a bottomless well of one-liners as the adult officials running the bee define the words to be spelled and use them in sentences. Creating gags on everything from “phylactery” to “cow,” book writer Rachel Sheinkin quickly gets on a comic roll that cheerfully disarms the audience.
Sheinkin, for the record, won a Tony Award for best book of a musical when “Bee” hit Broadway in 2005 (the year of “Spamalot” and “The Light in the Piazza”). Matthew A. Anderson’s barbed deliveries of punch lines as vice principal Douglas Panch makes him one of the most reliable assets in this iffy “Bee” at Ford’s.
The other surefire bit is the super-friendly audience participation. Before the show, a handful of civilians volunteer to join the cast and take their own stabs at spelling.
The actors know how to make easygoing fun of this, and it underlines the musical’s basic theme of being put on the spot and feeling vulnerable. Like the fictional losers, the audience participants who blow a word — and it happens to all of them — are consoled by a “comfort counselor” handing out juice boxes.
The wild card in any staging is the score by William Finn, and for some reason director Peter Flynn guides his cast to sing loud and storm through the songs. The five-piece pit band is often overwhelmed by percussion; the production doesn’t bring much flavor to Finn’s tunes.
Not that it’s a great score, but Finn (“Falsettos,” “Elegies: A Song Cycle”) is nothing if not empathetic, and his songs do catch the kids in more reflective modes. “I’m Not That Smart” is a tune for an awkward kid named Leaf Coneybear — and yes, everyone in this gentle world is endearingly offbeat, from their quirky names and flamboyantly odd costumes to their psychological hitches. Logainne Schwartzandgrubennierre, who has two dads (one hyper-competitive), croons “Woe Is Me.”
Nickolas Vaughan and Kristen Garaffo radiate energy as Leaf and Logainne, and so do all the actors playing these tender kids. But the hormonal performance seems so in thrall to some generic notion of musical theater energy that it consistently shortchanges real feeling. That’s never more apparent than during “The ‘I Love You’ Song,” a potentially heartbreaking fantasy ballad for a girl who dreams her parents are together and with her. (Sadly, they aren’t.) The number swells with volume but not with emotion.
Still, it’s “The Bee,” and it’s popular for a reason. If you go, you’re almost sure to laugh a lot, unless maybe you’re here on a trip and your school back home is doing “Bee,” too. You’re not sure to leave historic Ford’s thinking that they nailed it.
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman, book by Rachel Sheinkin, music and lyrics by William Finn. Directed by Peter Flynn. Additional material by Jay Reiss. Music direction, Christopher Youstra; choreography, Michael Bobbitt; scenic design, Court Watson; costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lights, Nancy Schertler; sound design, David Budries. With Carolyn Agan, Felicia Curry, Vincent Kempski, Kevin McAllister, Vishal Vaidya, and Rachel Zampelli. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through May 17 at Ford’s Theatre,
511 10th St. NW. Tickets $18-$77.
Call 800-982-2787 or visit fords.org .