A woman at Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee told me at intermission that she was having fun—but not as much fun as when she’d seen the show a few years ago on Broadway. And that summed up my feelings, too. Paper Mill has put on a cute show, and there are plenty of rewards to be had. But if you did see it on Broadway, you may feel a tad let down, because this production (directed by Marc Bruni) isn’t as well cast or directed as the original—or as well cast/directed as many Paper Mill productions are. And the full potential of the show isn’t being realized. Oh, there are some wonderful moments. Will Blum totally nailed the role of William Barfee, the spelling bee contestant who spells out words with his foot. But, while Lyle Colby Mackston was entertaining as Leaf Coneybear, he did not find all of the laughs or all of the poignancy to be found in that character. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who originated the role on Broadway, was more vulnerable, more eccentric, more endearing and more real as the insecure home-schooled student who proudly tells us he makes his own clothes; I not only believed him, I would have gladly bought home-made clothes from him. James Lapine, who directed the Broadway production (and also got a very satisfying performance out of Barrett Foa, too, when Foa succeeded Ferguson in the run), managed to extract from all of his actors more honesty and individuality than I felt here; and the show thus touched us more deeply. This musical (with songs by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, and concept by Rebecca Feldman) is witty and clever. Ephie Aardema, Marl
a Mindelle, Ali Stroker and David Volin all contribute good turns. Brandon Yanez is simply miscast. I had fun. But this isn’t quite Paper Mill at its best.
(Pictured: Will Blum; Photo by Mark Garvin)
January 23, 2011