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Photo Credit :: Joan Marcus
Arts & Entertainment
Spelling Bee at the Circle in the Square
By Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
June 13, 2006 
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If life is like a long school year, then Spelling Bee explains why we remain in a state of arrested development. With six characters (apart from the four drawn from the audience) representing a rainbow of iconic archetypes, from the fat know-it-all to the needy nerdy genius, and including the over-achiever and the eccentric artist as well as the goody-goody and the budding libertarian, Spelling Bee takes us into the minds of six dutiful children – and reveals that it’s parental approval we continually seek. There’s a strain of A Chorus Line running through Spelling Bee, with its characters singing about their fears of failure and their self-doubts, and at least one character, Leaf Coneybear, seems destined for a life in theatre, or fashion, or at the very least, an apartment in New York, where he’ll be surrounded by equally driven over-achievers.

Spelling Bee works so well because it shows us the adult in the child – the freak we’re afraid of becoming but cannot suppress. No one’s normal in Spelling Bee, no more than there’s normalcy in life – and the show succeeds in revealing the inner oddball and how it’s our oddities which make us individual, and ultimately, lovable. And there’s no question that all six primary characters would make fascinating dinner companions – and almost any parent proud. As would all six performances, played with such nuance and sensitivity that the adult coexists happily with the child, providing fascinating clues as to how we end up where we are.

With sure-handed direction by veteran James Lapine, and lovely music by William Finn, Spelling Bee also benefits at every performance from the willingness of four audience members to involve themselves in the spelling bee with a fervor that’s contagious to the rest of the audience. Invariably you find yourself rooting for one contestant – only to find yourself swayed by the gumption, or the need, or the desperation of another. So real is their desire that you worry for their disappointment – and yet that’s another one of Spelling Bee’s many coups: the manner in which it shows its audiences the myriad ways of winning.