Six will enter, only one will emerge victorious. The stakes could not be higher. Well, okay, they could absolutely be higher; it’s not a Hunger Games-type situation. It’s a spelling bee, where nerdy and awkward adolescents duke it out to see who can be the nerdiest and most awkward. Swamp Meadow Community Theatre’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (directed by Shannon McLoud) gives audiences an in-depth look at the trials and tribulations of being an overachieving youngster.
It might not be the most glamorous concept for a musical; a spelling bee is not exactly the stuff epics are made of. Still, Spelling Bee is a show that defies expectations. It manages to be both hilarious and touching, lighthearted and poignant. Leave your skepticism at the door and you’ll find a truly charming show (but leave your kids at home; there is some rather inappropriate humor, despite the seemingly innocent subject matter).
This is one instance where Swamp Meadow’s performance space of an elementary school cafetorium is advantageous. It almost turns the experience into an immersive one. As such, the set is on the simple side, with the focal point being the trophy for which the spellers are vying.
The spellers make for an eclectic cast of characters. First up is Chip Tolentino (Andy Affleck), last year’s victor, looking to claim the title once again. Affleck proves one of the stronger vocalists in the show in his featured numbers, “Pandemonium” (in which the spellers lament the random, luck-based nature of spelling bees) and “My Unfortunate Erection,” in which Chip laments his ultimate downfall due to the untimely stirrings of lust for a fellow speller’s sister (identified by a spotlight as an increasingly uncomfortable random member of the audience).
Next up is Leaf Coneybear (Dale Miller), a gentle soul stuck with an aggressive family who has him convinced he is “not that smart.” His crazy outfit, featuring a cape and a bike helmet, speak to his offbeat nature. He can only spell words in a trance-like state. Miller is one of the less musically inclined members of the cast, but it sort of works for the character, who isn’t always with the program. He plays Leaf’s spaciness well.
The youngest speller is Logainne Schwartzandgrubeneirre (Mariah Harrington). Politically minded and driven by her overbearing dads to accept nothing but victory by any means necessary, she’s sociable and bubbly, shaking the hand of every other speller as they enter, as though she’s starting her presidential campaign at the age of 10.
Perhaps the most overachieving of the overachievers is Catholic school girl Marcy Park (Merynn Flynn). She’s already been to nationals representing another district, and she’s not afraid to rub her achievements in the faces of her competitors, haughtily telling Chip she doesn’t remember him from nationals because she “only remembers the top 10.” She also petulantly clears her throat to get the comfort counselor to lower the microphone for her every time it’s her turn to spell. Flynn is another vocal powerhouse, especially in her number, “I Speak Six Languages,” where she lists her many accomplishments and begins to express a frustration with always being the best.
William Barfee (Dave McLoud) was last year’s runner-up. He boasts the most unique spelling technique with his “magic foot.” He’s not there to make friends; he’s there to win, and he won’t let anyone distract him, not even the announcer’s insistence on mispronouncing his last name or his peers’ attempts at small talk.
Finally, shy, sweet Olive Ostrovsky (Jennifer Mensel) is a loner with a love of words. She struggles with absent parents: her mother is on a spiritual quest in India, and her father is distant. This is another strong vocal performance, especially in “The I Love You Song,” the goosebump-inducing number in which she imagines her parents telling her they love her in a “chimerical” illusion (a member of the audience actually said, “Wow,” at the conclusion of the song). Mensel plays Olive’s insecurity well, often wringing her hands and slouching to minimize her (rather tall) height.
Three more spellers join the cast, chosen randomly among volunteers from the audience. These brave souls are thrust hilariously and awkwardly into the staging, while also having to spell words. For each turn they have, the announcers make up a fact about them, which usually amounts to a roasting of what they’re wearing or something about their involvement in the Putnam community.
Joining the kids are three adult characters. First is Rona Lisa Peretti (Elena Wildes), a former spelling champion herself, now the top real estate agent in Putnam County, looking to relive her glory days. Wildes captures her artificially sweet personality well. There to give the spellers their words is Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Jonathan Safford). Clearly smitten with Rona, and teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, he earns the most laughs of the night with his definitions and sample sentences of such words as “apoop,” “Mexican” and “covfefe.” Finally, to comfort eliminated spellers is Midge Mahoney (Lona Robillard), there to complete her court-mandated community service. She’s a toughened criminal who learns to embrace her role as a comforter. Her vocals are also fantastic in her song “Prayer of a Comfort Counselor.”
Musically, there were some issues with the cast staying with the orchestration. This may be due to a sound issue, though this is also the risk of using pre-recorded tracks rather than live accompaniment, which can be difficult for a small community theater to secure.
The lighting design (Holly Lotter and Brady McLoud) helps to distinguish between flashback, fantasy and reality. Unfortunately, sometimes the lights are slow to change, leaving the audience in the dark for an awkwardly long time before the lights come up for intermission and at the end of the show, or blurring some transitions within the show.
What Swamp Meadow ought to be commended for is its commitment to oft-forgotten forms of diversity – in this case, age and ability (racial diversity is another story). Spelling Bee always has adults playing children, but at least the way I have seen it, it’s usually younger adults. In this production, many of the performers have beards or gray hair – and the number of bald cast members makes the line in the finale “and look, our hair is thinning” much funnier. Granted, it does take some added suspension of disbelief to believe the man with the beard is a 10-year-old; it is nonetheless nice to see a youthful show embrace actors of all ages. It is rare to see disability represented on the stage in a show that does not explicitly call for it, and this show features two performers in wheelchairs, both of whom are extremely talented and for whom nothing should bar their appearing on stage. There may be those who think having a performer with limited mobility in a show would detract from the production in some way, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I find it brings something new to the show and these characters. In any case, I hope other theaters take note: Inclusion of all kinds is the future of theater (MOTIF has reviewed Flynn in several productions over the years, appearing in different theaters, including Epic Theatre Co. and Academy Players -. ed).
Swamp Meadow’s Spelling Bee faces the problems any community theater struggles with, but these are minor blips in an otherwise fun experience. It makes audiences laugh, maybe even cry, and speaks to everyone’s inner geek.
Swamp Meadow Community Theatre presents The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (book by Rachel Sheinkin and score by William Finn) through May 5 at the Captain Isaac Paine Auditorium in Foster. For tickets and more information, visit swampmeadow.org