Sunday, February 16, 2014

Theatre: Twenty Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The musical Twenty Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which was nominated for a Tony Award back in 2005, played at the Al Green Theatre back in September.  The cast consists of six young spellers, two judges and a "comfort councilor", each with his own quirks, idiosyncrasies and personal issues.  The judges give humorous introductions as each contestant comes to the front to take his or her turn.

The spellers include Olive who is neglected by her parents and waits in vain for her father to show up for the tournament, Leaf who only made it into the contest by default, Logainne who has two gay dads that want her to win at any cost, Marcy the stereotypical overachieving Asian who is tired of being expected to excel at everything, Chip who is distracted by an attractive girl in the audience, and William Barfée who has a severe peanut allergy and spells out the words with his "magic foot".

The other spellers each have their methods of pre-visualizing the words, including Logainne who writes on her arm with her finger, and Olive who whispers into her hand.  Leaf goes into a weird trance and somehow comes up with the correct spelling.  Each speller is allowed to ask for a definition of their word, and for it to be used in a sentence.  This gives the judges opportunity to deliver some jokes related either to the word or to the contestant.

Adding excitement and unpredictability to each show is the inclusion of four audience members as extra spellers.  It is scripted and pre-planned as to how many rounds the audience spellers should last.  This is achieved by giving them an easy first word such as "cow" (much to the chagrin of the regular spellers from the cast), and then a difficult word to eliminate them.  Every once in a while, an unexpectedly proficient audience member correctly spells their second word, in which case the judges try to give him progressively more difficult words until he finally gets one wrong.  The jokes used to introduce the audience members as well as their word definitions and sentence usage are often ad-libbed based on the characteristics or wardrobe of the people chosen.

The judges include former spelling bee champion Rona Peretti who still basks in the glory of her former win, and Vice Principal Douglas Panch who has unrequited feelings for Rona and hints at some previous "incident" from which he claims to be in a better place now.  Mitch Mahoney is an ex-convict performing community service as the "comfort councilor" of the Spelling Bee.  His role involves handing an eliminated speller a consolation juice box as the others sing the "Goodbye" song.

While there are many funny moments in this musical, it is the touching stories of the young contestants, who share their anxieties, hopes and dreams, that give the show its heart.  And you learn how to spell a bunch of complicated words that you've never heard of before.

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