He’s been a struggling actor belting ”Wunderbar” in a backstage dressing room (Kiss Me Kate), a desperate African-American out for vengeance (Ragtime), and a Spanish vagabond of questionable stability (Man of La Mancha). Now Brian Stokes Mitchell has a new identity — Broadway’s best s-p-e-l-l-e-r.
He earned the title playing himself at a special March 18 performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, composer William Finn’s little-musical-that-could about a group of ragtag kids at the titular middle school competition. Along with fellow theater celebs Raúl Esparza (formerly of Taboo, currently of Company) and Lea Salonga (the original Kim in Miss Saigon, now starring in Les Misérables) Mitchell took to the stage’s bleachers — from which the Putnamites sing, dance, and bemoan pubescent pandemonium — as a guest speller.
Despite playing a pseudointellectual in Company, Esparza was the first eliminated; Salonga hung in through crapaud, an edible South American bullfrog (used in a sentence: While stars are fed the best craft services has to offer, ”understudies are fed crapaud”). The former Flower Drum Song star was also the subject of the night’s worthiest pun, when Greg Stuhr — as bee emcee Douglas Panch — said she had turned lingerie designer and created a line of ”flower drum thongs.” Once eliminated, she sat with a friend and sipped from the juice box Derrick Baskin (as ”comfort counselor” Mitch) handed each ousted speller.
Mitchell confidently spelled words like lascivious and indigent (”Most indigent people gather in the Actors’ Equity lounge”), to earn the nickname ”Earth-Tone Assassin” from the judges before retiring to a house seat. And despite the temporary infusion of star power, Spelling Bee — about to celebrate two years on Broadway — managed to retain its subtle charm. With a cast led by talented original stars Jose Llana (as cocky Boy Scout Chip Tolentino), Sarah Saltzman (lisping feminist Logainne), and Deborah S. Craig (overachiever Marcy ”I Speak Six Languages” Park), Putnam County’s still the place to bee.