On Broadway: Words Can't Say It All in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

By Gold, Sylviane | Dance Magazine, May 2005 | Go to article overview

On Broadway: Words Can't Say It All in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee


Gold, Sylviane, Dance Magazine


One of the big differences between dance in the musical theater and dance on the concert stage is that in a musical, movement can sneak up behind you and lift you out of your seat. At American Ballet Theatre or Paul Taylor Dance Company, audiences know they're in metaphor-land and dance will be the chief means of expression. Musicals happen in a different place--a place where everyday speech is the standard of communication. When it proves inadequate, music takes over. And when there's even more to say, well, it's time to dance.

That's precisely how it works in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the surprise hit of the season. With music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin, no stars, no ensemble, and no hype, it opened in February at the off-Broadway Second Stage Theater. The rave reviews sent it quickly into the Circle in the Square, a Broadway house that makes it eligible for the Tony Awards.

Anyone who was won over by Spellbound, the 2002 documentary that brilliantly captured the agony and the ecstasy of six contestants at the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., will understand where this show is coming from. With adult actors playing the middle school students, and volunteers from the audience filling out the ranks of the spellers, Bee manages to be both funny and compassionate about these freaky kids who know how to spell words like "syzygy."

So where's the dancing? Though the bee takes place in a gym, the participants are there to spell, not dance. Yet the musical, which grew out of a straight play called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, becomes a kind of object lesson in how dance should work in the theater. As new spelling words propel the plot forward, the show stops periodically for a song that gets us inside a speller's head. They're a pretty, weird bunch: a home-schooled idiot-savant, a little-Miss-Perfect, a walking anthology of lefty dogma. And the first sign that there may be a real dance component in the show erupts in "Pandemonium," a wild ride illustrating the fundamental principle of both spelling bees and life: They ain't fair. In the number, students and scenery both spin out of control, and Jose Liana, as a frustrated speller who's just been eliminated on a technicality, flies across the stage on a gym rope.

And then there's Dan Fogler, as William Barfee. His name, repeatedly pronounced BARFY (even as he insists it's BARFAY), is only the least of his social liabilities. He's a slobby, pampered, overfed prep school geek with a swelled head that isn't entirely the result of his permanently congested sinuses. He spells by writing out words with his foot, shuffling across the stage as his extended right leg traces curlicues into the floor.

"Dan is a big guy, but he is so graceful and in such control of his body," says the show's choreographer, Dan Knechtges (which is pronounced like "connect-us"). "And he brought such a rich character to the table! I would pull up Charlie Chaplin moves or Buster Keaton moves, and he could turn around and make them Barfee moves."

It's no accident that Fogler really does have a "magic foot. …

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On Broadway: Words Can't Say It All in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
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