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'Bee' daring; Local production of Broadway hit vows poignancy, laughs

It would be easy to mistake "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's beloved 2005 musical about a ragtag group of quirky spelling bee contestants, for a frivolous piece of sketch comedy.

After all, it features a group of adults playing children far younger than them, a setup that involves plenty of ad-libbing, audience participation and a score featuring songs with titles like "Magic Foot" and "My Unfortunate Erection." These are not exactly check marks in the "take me seriously" column.

But for Greg Stuhr, a longtime member of the show's Broadway cast and director of a local production that opens Wednesday in MusicalFare Theatre, the heart of "Spelling Bee" is as pure and as poignant as can be.

"The first thing I told the actors was that our goal is not to get the audience to laugh," Stuhr said during an interview in the MusicalFare lobby. "I think the laughs will come. Our goal is to draw them in to the characters, and the way to do that is to focus on the heartfelt moments, the serious moments, the poignant moments."

This particular musical, as Broadway offerings of the last decade go, is more familiar than most to local theatergoers. A tour of the production came through Shea's Performing Arts Center in 2008, and last year, O'Connell and Company mounted a bare-bones production of it at its recently adopted space in Williamsville.
The musical had its beginnings as a sketch comedy piece by a New York City comedy troupe known as The Farm, making its way to off-Broadway in early 2005 and jumping to Broadway shortly thereafter for a nearly three-year run. Its collection of quirky tweens -- from the disheveled and absent-minded Leaf Coneybear and the overbearing William Barfee to the prissy but vulnerable Marcy Park and sweetly unassuming Olive Ostrovsky -- have gained the show a massive cult following even outside the traditional realm of Broadway fandom.

Though it takes a somewhat traditional form in terms of its songs and plot structure, the show is unusual among musicals for the way it incorporates audience members as guest spellers (you can sign up before the show if you're interested) and for segments that change from night to night. It's also had more hands than usual involved in its creative process, from the original comedy troupe to director James Lapine, book-writer Sheinkin and composer-lyricist Finn among many others.

"There's no precedent for a show like this. It shouldn't really succeed, it shouldn't work. Talk about a show by a committee if there ever was one," Stuhr said. "Yet somehow, it became this very focused piece."

One of the core challenges of directing a regional production of the show, Stuhr said, came from emphasizing the characters themselves, as opposed to simply playing for laughs, as is often the approach in slapstick-fueled musicals like, say, "Young Frankenstein." That approach, if it works, pays off during a particularly poignant number about divorce and longing called "The I Love You Song," delivered by Olive Ostrovsky (played in this production by Michele Marie Roberts) toward the end of the show.

"How do you earn that song?" Stuhr said. "I think the only way you earn it is that very early in the show you're planting the seeds that there's more going on here than what your perception of a musical comedy show where adults are playing kids might be."

Stuhr also credited the cast with a willingness to modify their approach to the show's characters, which have become so embedded into the minds of Broadway fans worldwide.

"We have the luxury of an intimate theater, and I think we have a wonderful cast," he said.

"I've been encouraging them from the beginning to make strong choices but to keep them in a kind of reality that I'm banking on will draw the audience into the story of these characters as much as the laughter and the fun of the piece."

The talent of Buffalo's actors, he added, is "unbelieveable for a community this size -- even for a community twice this size."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"    

WHEN: Through May 15    

WHERE: MusicalFare, 4380 Main St.    

INFO: www.musicalfare.com, 839-8540

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