‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ is a singularly charming communal experience
The latest offering from American University’s Department of Performing Arts is performed to cheeky perfection
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a charming musical comedy full of characters that are as ecstatic and eccentric as they are endearing. “Spelling Bee” was performed on Oct. 21-23 and 29-30 at Greenberg Theatre by American University's Department of Performing Arts.
The play, which takes place during the 25th annual spelling bee at the eponymous Putnam Valley Middle School, utilizes its wide array of quirky characters to explore various themes surrounding belongingness and the perils of puberty.
As the six contestants compete for first place, we learn more about them through a series of musical numbers that are full of heart and levity. From the perpetually nervous and politically active Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Nicole Klokiw) to the timid and possibly possessed Leaf Coneybear (Carson Young), each speller is somewhat of an outsider among their peers at school for various reasons. However, they’re all united in their affinity and passion for spelling.
Naturally, a musical comedy needs to deliver heavily on laughter. “Spelling Bee” does exactly that, garnering cackles from the audience with seeming ease; an impressive achievement for any live performance. Whether we’re chuckling at the outlandishly sardonic antics of William Barfée (Patrick Donoughe) and his “magic foot” technique or the smoke-shrouded appearance of Jesus Christ (Bret O’Brien) as he brings words of encouragement to the chronically stressed Marcy Park (Rosie DeLuca), there’s not a dull moment to be found.
Audience participation is another unique component of “Spelling Bee.” At the beginning of the show, four audience members are selected to be guest spellers. These four participants are intermittently incorporated into the bee as they are asked to spell a variety of words ranging in difficulty from “cow” to “lysergic acid diethylamide.” They are also frequently roasted by the wittily, ruthless moderator, Rona Lisa Peretti (Natasha Sookrah). Pronouncer and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Eli Jensen) turns in an equally-sharp tongued performance as he provides spellers with irreverently humorous definitions and sample sentences for their words.
Another key sequence of spectator involvement involves the hilarious misfortune of the bee's reigning champion, Chip Tolentino (O’Brien). As he rises to spell, he is suddenly overwhelmed by his crippling attraction to Leaf’s sibling, Marigold, who is played by a randomly selected audience member. Unfortunately for Chip, this causes something else to rise as well. After he misspells his word in a moment of intrusive thought, he sings the song “My Unfortunate Erection/Distraction (Chip’s Lament)” to Marigold in the form of an agitated serenade in one of the funniest moments of the entire play.
Beyond all the laughs that it generates, “Spelling Bee’s” most transcendent and universal quality is its relatability. Subjects such as alienation, community, pressure to excel and first love are all portrayed in ways that effortlessly ride the line between sensitive introspection and quippy humor. Subplots such as the budding romance between William and Olive Ostrovsky (Cate Ginsberg) encapsulate all the awkward joy and nerves of young romance to a tee. One would be hard-pressed to attend the show and not sympathize with some or all of the characters and their singularly idiosyncratic dispositions.
For anyone looking to get into musicals, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is the perfect gateway to your newest obsession. Even those unacquainted with the theater will be able to appreciate all of the side-splitting and heartwarming high jinks of this fast-paced, utterly exuberant performance. And if you're truly lucky, you might just get to be Marigold.
Editor's Correction: A previous version of this article mislabeled the character of Marcy Park and Rosie DeLuca.