Musical makes a spelling bee fun for all

Musical makes a spelling bee fun for all
Photo courtesy of Genarro Seno.

How does theatre make something as academically dry and mundane as a spelling bee exciting and hilarious to watch? It's a task that not many shows can do, but “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” succeeds with flying colors.

Written by William Finn and adapted from the book by Rachel Sheinkin, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” focuses on the estranged lives of 6 spellers who compete to win the local county spelling bee. Their personalities are rife with eccentricities and cartoonish antics that lend themselves to plenty of gut-roaring comedy, and, surprisingly, a good amount of drama.

This all comes together wonderfully because of how well the character dynamics play off of each other. Olive Ostrovsky is a neurotic bookish girl whose first friend ever in life was her dictionary, an archetype that is balanced by her difficulty connecting with her family.

William Barfee, whose last name is comedically mispronounced as "barfy" throughout the play, is a nerdy basket case who does a kind of shuffle dance with his "magic foot" to spell out the word before saying it out loud.

Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre is a caricature of a modern liberal family, helmed by two gay fathers, that often breaks the fourth wall with comments like "Donald Trump doesn't best represent my interests at heart," which are both funny and endearing to listen to.

Marcy Park is your standard know-it-all overachiever, whose hilarious musical numbers revolve around her knowledge of languages. Her characterization gets some depth through an interesting twist and play on the trope.

Leaf Coneybear represents every dumb kid you've ever known in school. He has aspirations to win the bee, but doesn't believe himself capable. However, through some kind of dumbfounded miracle, he discovers that he can spell even words that he's never heard of before.

Charlito Tolentino is a Boy Scout whose erections get in the way of his ambitions.

The two hosts of the spelling bee, Rona Lisa Peretti, former Spelling Bee Champ and realtor, and vice principal Douglas Panch, judge of the bee, are also both a delight to witness. Panch's dialogue is an infusion of both script and improv comedy. When a contestant asks for a word to be used in a sentence, he gives an outrageous response. One such example is when the word was "Mexican", to which Panch said "Guacamole: the Mexican pudding."

The play shines through also with its use of prop placement and mise-en-scene. Lights soften and change into dark colors, and actors put on different voices and clothes on the spot as the narrative plunges into flashbacks. The transition into these scenes of backstory is seamless and perfectly executed beat-by-beat.

The set comes to life as actors frequently enter and leave the stage to engage with the audience, giving the show a very organic look and feel. As is custom, normally the play invites a few members from the audience to take part in the spelling bee along with the cast, turning the experience from static to dynamic.

Each musical number is catchy and hilarious, often bursting into the absurd at the drop of a hat. These turn somewhat emotional in the second half, turning what appeared to be stereotypes at first into something with more layers and depth.

If the idea of seeing an entire musical about a Spelling Bee sounds absurd and not worth your time, you'd be mistaken. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” smashes expectations and was one of the best and most hilarious theater experiences I've ever had.

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