I do not watch much television, preferring to read for information and leisure. This may seem contradictory for someone who has dyslexia. While never formally identified during my education days, given the era when I was in school before most learning disabilities had labels, I figured this out on my own. Also, through reading out-loud, I developed a degree of ability to recognize when words did not make sense and needed to be studied more carefully.
A few years ago, I attended a professional workshop in town. That evening at the Super 8 motel, I flipped through the cable TV stations as a novelty. None of the news, comedy, movie, or drama programs caught my attention. Maybe I could find a hockey game at least. The local team was not playing. And, ESPN was carrying… the National Spelling Bee. I decided to return to my book instead of being tortured with not being able to know whether young girls and boys could spell words that I could not even sound out.
Then the McCoy Grand Theatre decided to produce the musical, The 25th Annual Putnum CountySpelling Bee. Should we attend or stay home? I am glad that we opted to attend the opening night performance. We were laughing from the initial reminiscence of the spelling bee’s host, Rosa Lisa Perretti (Kelly Crites) about her winning of a spelling bee, to the final contestant’s change in his weltanschauung.
As a musical, The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee is a newer style of musical comedy which we have noticed coming out during the past 15 or so years. Rather than the grand romantic musicals, such as Music Man or My Fair Lady, or the epic dramas, such as Fiddler on the Roof or les Miserables, this style is more of a situation comedy with an emphasis on the personal experiences of the characters and their interactions in that situation. To this end, each character represents an extreme of their personality type. To add some fun, the production also invites four volunteers from the audience to come on stage and take their turn at spelling.
Rosa Lisa sparkles as the always encouraging host, whether you are enjoying that sparkle in her voice, eyes, or smile. Her co-host Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Heath Hershberger) brings a dark enthusiasm to the contest. He is in charge as the rule keeper, all the while alluding to some laps in his ability to follow some rule, which keeps him in the vice position, rather than the complete principle. His dead-pan responses to contestants’ request for definitions of word and use of the words in sentences left us in stitches. He also had to respond to those four audience members transformed into spelling bee contestants, who’s lines are not scripted. The third host of the evening is Mitch Mahoney (Terry Richardson), the Comfort Counselor, aka Biker Doing Community Service. His leather jacket and cap are soft, though, giving out juice boxes and hugs as contestants say goodbye after muffing a spelling. He might even have shed a tear or two in empathy.
As to the contestants in the script, Chip Tolentino (Alex McDonald) greets us first as he is called up from the audience to take his seat on the platform. His voice is bold and clear, as will be his presentation with each word challenge. Yet, his Boy Scout readiness will fall to his distraction of the sister of another contestant. Preparing for failure and lust were two badges that he does not sport on his uniform.
He is followed by Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Catherine Smith), who is haunted by her woe between success and failure, traits so common to middle school age students. Her pig tails and writing letters on her arms contrast with her attempts to look older and more masculine in pants, tie and jacket. We will learn more later in the musical about her gender confusion, living with “two Dads”. The ghost of parents, present and absent, is a major theme in the drama side of this production.
Leaf Coneybear (Eric Ringler) is a ringer for all of us who would have never made it to the county spelling bee, if the top spellers did not have other commitments that weekend. How do you spell bat mitzvah? Leaf blows in the wind of his ambition to participate and ambivalence of being “not that smart”. He is the clown that delights us with his home-schooled, home-made tie-dye T-shirt, red cape, supportive finger puppets, and demonic crossed eyed spelling trances.
William Barfee (Jesse Hedrick) is the brilliant nerd whom we all feared to be in our early teens. To rest of us, he is the disheveled, awkwardly attired personality that demanded two seats on stage. When he lumbers, lugubriously to center stage to take his turn, his magic foot takes over turning the stage into a massive ouija board which spirits the letters from floor to toe to brain. He is never wrong, and he knows it… until he realizes that winning the spelling bee and connecting with another person, who is passionate about words, exists. He battles with himself whether to throw the bee to take second or place first, as competition and companionship vie for his decision.
Olive Ostrovsky (Sarah Widder) becomes the love object, a role she is not familiar with. She laments WHAT is missing in her life, playing riddles with words, such as the silent letters in ansWer, gHost… oops, if forgot which words A and T are silent in… Her mother is off finding resolution for her depression with a spiritual quest in India. Her father runs late at work, never occupying the seat that Olive has saved for him. While pondering whether her name will transform from Olive to I Love, and William will become Will Aim, we can enjoy her voice that fills the theatre with the mystery of the questions she asks.
Finally, the coldest of students, Marcy Parks (Shayna Hepner) completes the roster. She is an expert on everything. From her parochial school back ground and driven parents, she can answer the challenge in six languages, and equal number of class subjects and sports, and even karate kicks a board in half. Winning is less a matter of possibility than determination. However, her style of winning would be at the cost of losing connection with the her peers and teachers. Her come-to-Jesus moment, literally, gives her the freedom to explore her ambitions and interests, regardless of the trophies and accolades that line her selves and walls.
Betty Stickley’s direction brings together a production that goes beyond a goofy bunch of portrayals of what we adults recall of our transition from childhood to adulthood. She teases out how each of these teens moves from childhood to adolescence. The set that she and Alex McDonald designed, allows for swirling images of the pandemonium and angst that we all went through whether we joined the spelling bee, orchestra, sports team, drama club, or just managed to get on the bus every day to go to school. To this affect, the platform on which two rows of chair seat each of the contestants revolves during a couple of the dance/song numbers. Such confusion is the hormone driven years of our youth. In one stunning use of this affect, Logainne turns in opposite time with the platform, such that she sings, always facing the audience, while the rest of the room appears to swirl around her. I recall such an experience in 7th grade algebra…
One theory of personality is that whom we will become is well set before childhood is over. The rest of life is understanding this, accepting our skills and vulnerabilities, and refining these in such a manner that we can find connection with others, and to some degree function in society. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee shows a group of youth starting this process.
As for me, I best run spiel cheque and read this post out-loud a couple of times to find the eros which alludes my brain.