ON THE RECORD: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and All Shook Up

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and All Shook Up
This week's column discusses William Finn's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and the "all-Elvis" All Shook Up.

The name "William Finn" on the title page of a musical gives audiences a pretty good idea of what to expect. Until now, that is. Finn's not-very-many theatrical excursions have each and every one of them been provocative, to say the least, with the author's seriousness of purpose leavened by a refreshingly mordant humor mixed with cheerful fatalism.

Finn would be the first to tell you that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is outside the realm of anything he has done or — I suppose — heretofore been interested in doing. His prior musicals (March of the Falsettos, Falsettoland, A New Brain being the most produced) were all highly personal works, springing from his own idiosyncratic mind. (Editing and other assistance came from James Lapine, who directed the first two and was credited as colibrettist on the latter two.) The plots, the characters and the action were driven by the wild creativity of the songwriter.

With Spelling Bee, Finn walked into an existing project, with a working book, laugh-getting dialogue and even some actors already in place. Instead of telling the story with song words, Finn's assignment was to illustrate and enhance the libretto. This is a very different function than Finn has heretofore filled; everything in a typical Finn show, from curtain to curtain, happens with music.

The different nature of the Spelling Bee assignment explains, in some ways, the joyfulness of the score. Finn doesn't have to carry the entire show on his shoulders, for a change; his shoulders, and his heart, are noticeably lighter. The characters in Spelling Bee are having fun, or trying to, and the audience is certainly having fun. What happens, surprisingly enough, is that the composer — for seemingly the first time, professionally — actually appears to have fun himself.

In attempting to discuss this score, I began to formulate an in-depth description of Finn's several song styles. For simplicity's sake, I think that it is enough to say that the Spelling Bee score is fun-packed and charm filled, thank you very much. The Finn who has heretofore written delectably complex comic set pieces (such as "The Baseball Game") as well as delectably simple comedy tunes (such as "Everyone Hates His Parents") has, reasonably enough, created more of the same. Hence, the every-actor-for-him-or herself "Pandemonium," on the one hand, and the unconventional show tune "Magic Foot" on the other hand. Or, I suppose, the other foot. In a day when much of the music on Broadway sounds the same, it's a pleasure to hear two back-to-back scores — Spelling Bee and The Light in the Piazza — which couldn't have been written by anyone other than their respective composers. You laugh through Spelling Bee in the theatre; more specifically, you laugh through the songs. Listening to the CD, you realize something that is only peripherally apparent at Circle in the Square. Finn, who has used song time and again to examine the inner psychology (and heartbreak) of his characters, has slipped in a few of those poignant pleas from the inner heart while we were busy laughing.

This is best demonstrated by the simplistically titled "I Love You Song," a trio for a pre-teen and her estranged parents. "I love you," the girl sings, "I love you," the parents sing. "I swear it's true," adds the mother; "maybe it's true," adds the father. The girl can only tell her mother "I wish you were home"; as for her father, she trenchantly observes, "I think he takes out on me what he wants to take out on you." This packs an emotional wallop; it also tells us, in a roundabout way, more about children and parents and loneliness and coping mechanisms than a libretto full of dialogue can.

This is preceded by the similarly deceptive "I Speak Six Languages." Yes, the over-achieving Asian-American perfectionist speaks six languages; but her words tell us that she's sick and tired of always being the best and the brightest. (Finn also can't help but add that "for my height, I'm the lightest of the girls in my class.") The song builds to the moment where the character realizes that she can help herself, simply by choosing to misspell a word. One boy explains that he's not really smart, a refrain that has clearly been drilled into his self-image by his siblings. Another confesses that she loves the "oversized dictionary that I read as a girl on the toilet." The joke is there, but it lays the ground for the truth — that the dictionary is her "reliable friend," the only reliable friend she has.

The dictionary and its words are the only friends these characters have. Except Finn, and librettist Rachel Sheinkin, the half-dozen or so actors and writers who developed the material, and director Lapine. And let's not forget the cast, just about all of whom are l-e-t-t-e-r p-e-r-f-e-c-t. Celia Keenan Bolger packs the most emotional wallop, helped along by Finn's love song and dictionary song. (Ms. Bolger, it might be added, created the role of Clara in the regional tryout of A Light in the Piazza. Seeing her here makes one curious to see her take on Clara, too.) Deborah S. Craig essays the girl with six languages, while Dan Fogler is the misfit with the remarkable foot and the newly minted Tony.

Sarah Saltzberg has two fathers, braces, and a lisp that won't stop. Rounding out the contestants are Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Jose Llana, both of whom have been giving consistently fine performances around town. They first came to view in tandem, playing two of the three young sailors On the Town in George C. Wolfe's 1997 Shakespeare in the Park production. (Ferguson held his own against the man-eating Lea DeLaria; Llana, who made an exceptionally good Gabey, was deemed too young and replaced for the show's Broadway engagement.) Here they are back together again eight years later, playing twelve-year-olds.

Let's also say a word for Jay Reiss, who as the vice principal doesn't have much to sing but who delivers all those word definitions (most of which he apparently wrote himself). While he didn't share in the show's Tony Award for best book, he provides some of the very biggest laughs. Finn's trusty musical staff once again expertly translates his percussively pianistic style for orchestra: Music director Vadim Feichtner, who has been at the keyboard since Infinite Joy; and orchestrator Michael Starobin, who got his start, as far as I can tell, in 1979 with Finn's first musical In Trousers.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee does not have the musical-dramatic impact of Falsettos or Elegies, naturally enough. But loyal fans of Finn will be pleased to find that their boy is in a jaunty mood, leaving them roaring (while choking back a couple of tears). The vast majority of the musical theatre audience at large, who have never attended a William Finn musical, might find Spelling Bee reason enough to investigate his other work. Which is all to the good.

ALL SHOOK UP [Sony BMG 82876 69124]
All Shook Up, the musical at the Palace, left me distinctly unstirred. The CD, from the new Sony BMG combine, is somewhat more interesting. It still is, for better or worse, what it intends to be: a new musical comedy in which "the story is all new, the hits are all Elvis."

That tag line contains two landmines, at least for theatregoers who shuddered through Footloose, Saturday Night Fever and Good Vibrations. A young ne'er-do-well rides into a middle-of-nowhere small-town on his motorcycle, stirring up the local youth and leading everyone to learn the power of true love and rock 'n' roll music. This story is, excuse me, "all new"? As for the songs, what you have is all Elvis, all the time. The late Mr. Presley has gazillions of fans out there, sure, and many of the songs he sang remain familiar, fifty years after he smashed through to fame.

But an evening of Elvis on Broadway can backfire, and quickly too. Elvis was a singer, not a writer; thus, performances of his songs are immediately open to comparison. Are the All Shook Up performances of "Heartbreak Hotel," "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Jailhouse Rock" as distinctive as Elvis's recordings of same? Of course not. A modern-day Elvis wouldn't be biding his time in a drafty third-floor dressing room at the Palace; he'd be presiding over his own media empire. I can't speak for the Elvis fans, as I'm not of their number, but the prevailing sentiment seems to be that the songs as sung in the musical pale in comparison to the originals.

Combine a checkered reaction from the Elvis fans with the expected cold shoulder from the non-Elvis fans, many of whom comprise the core of Broadway theatregoers, and you've got a couple of strikes against you. The folks at All Shook Up clearly went out of their way to devise a generally cheery, friendly and colorful entertainment. But when you choose to live by Elvis, and label yourself "all Elvis," you have to accept the adverse consequences.

The CD reflects favorably on the cast, many of who are somewhat obscured in the theatre by the goings-on onstage. Jenn Gambatese, Cheyenne Jackson, Jonathan Hadary, Leah Hocking and Mark Price all come across very nicely. Ms. Gambatese, especially, seems to be a smart-and-attractive actor; all points indicate that she is a musical comedy find. The CD also showcases the work of Stephen Oremus, who is credited on the title page for "music supervision and arrangements," as well as being the co-orchestrator. (Elsewhere, the liner notes tell us that he is also the musical director, conductor and keyboard player.) While one can question the effectiveness of this scoreful of Elvis songs, the arrangements — that is, the way the songs are routined for the show and performed — work very nicely, with good vocals and good humor abundant.

All told, the CD of All Shook Up is more listenable than some disgruntled theatregoers might expect, and it features a handful of bright performers. —Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

Today’s Most Popular News: