There’s a trope in fiction that almost always grabs my interest regardless of the scenario; for lack of a better term I refer to it as the Human Countdown. This setup involves any plot in which, through delightful, threatening, or other means, a group of characters is paired down one by one until one “winner” remains. I can’t quite explain it, but there’s something greatly engaging about both the uncertainty of who will go next and the certainty of that only one will stand when the dust settles. Now, this is often an easy setup for a sinister tale (see And Then There Were None or Battle Royale), but there are others that bend it a bit (Juror #8’s steady convincing of his fellow jurors in 12 Angry Men being a prime example). Perhaps it’s the struggle of growing attached to characters you know will be “eliminated” from the plot, or simply the invigoration of the competition that drives my interests in these stories. Either way they demand your investment.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical comedy about exactly what you think it is, a spelling bee. The entire show is contained within the single set of the spelling bee as the colorful caricatures (and some audience participants) compete to win the bee. But as the contest continues and contestants are eliminated we get to delve into the kids’ backgrounds to see just how much they want to win.
Spelling Bee is unique among musicals in its use of one set and its relatively small cast size for a musical (9 actors), though that certainly lends itself to intrigue as one wonders how you can make a musical out of this plot. Much of that comes through the cast who, like the characters from Little Shop of Horrors and Rocky Horror, are cartoonish in their depictions: the unkempt, intellectual snob, the horny Boy Scout, the all-around perfectionist, etc. Of course, there’s more to their identities than their outward appearances suggest (a major theme in the plot in general), but their base depictions help solidify the play’s tone right off the bat. However, one of the hallmarks of Spelling Bee is its audience participation; volunteers are given the chance to be contestants in the bee and sit onstage with the actors until they’re inevitably eliminated from the plot. What really struck me was just how much the four audience “characters” got into it. True this the cast and crew has no control over, but the audience members played along with the best of them. Even some of the people who stayed in the audience the entire show but were called out (i.e. a woman supposedly sitting in a reserved seat) rolled with it without question. Their presence opened ample opportunity for the cast to improvise some pretty solid comedy, most notably Brett Weaver (William Barfée), Robyn Conner (Rona Lisa Paretti), and Erik Freisinger (Vice Principal Douglas Panch).
Given that much of the cast spends the whole play together onstage there certainly needed to be comedic chemistry between them. The aforementioned Freisinger, who has no singing solos but is tasked with delivering most of the plays one-liners, gives an excellent deadpan delivery that wonderfully off-balances the zaniness of the rest of the cast. His lines rarely didn’t make me laugh. Alongside Freisinger on the “staff” side of the cast were aforementioned Conner and Jason Cosby (Mitch Mahoney the Comfort Counselor) who arguably had the two best voices in the cast. One of the late-show songs that’s surprisingly heavy for Spelling Bee (The I Love You Song) was performed by Conner, Cosby, and Chantel Getz (Olive Ostrovsky), and it was knocked right out of the park by these three. Most of the songs in Spelling Bee are comedic and campy so there’s room for the vocals to be a little sillier, but this is one of the few moments that the play gets deeply serious and demands that intensity. All three sang beautifully.
More on the character–spectrum of vocals were the aforementioned Weaver and Justin Getz (Leaf Coneybear), both of whom played roles that (in most productions of Spelling Bee I’ve seen) tend to be some of the more memorable characters. Both actors easily earned their laughs and owned their roles even when they were in the background, though their vocals could have been stronger mid-song. Granted most of their solos were lighthearted and goofy so they didn’t hold the production back but there was room for improvement. Similarly, Shelby Schisler (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere) sang her solos well but was sometimes a little too jittery and active in character. There was rarely a moment where she wasn’t moving in some manner, and over time it became a little distracting. However, I do appreciate that Logainne’s topical political commentary scene (usually the one cringe-worthy part of any Spelling Bee production) was kept to a modest two lines that still poked fun at modern politics without feeling the need to ramble on. Emily Villarreal’s depiction of Marcy Parks was interesting in that she made her a mix between the typical overachiever and a tough girl, often punching one hand into another and rarely dropping her intense countenance. Honestly though, the only cast member I really have issue with is Rafael de la Cruz (Chip Tolentino). It’s not necessarily that his was a weak performance but his voice was soft enough that it was often hard to hear what he was saying (especially during his songs). But honestly, none of the problems mentioned come anywhere close to making the production not enjoyable.
Last year, while reviewing Little Shop of Horrors, I made mention that shows like it and Spelling Bee are inherently fun and enjoyable shows. I’ve never not enjoyed a production Spelling Bee (even when I worked a spotlight for production in 2014), and this one certainly doesn’t break that barrier. It’s a very streamlined show that leaves enough wiggle room with improve and audience participation to leave you wondering exactly what you’ll see that night. It’s a hilarious romp that will leave you smiling and with more than few good words to use in your next round of Scrabble.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues playing at the Sam Bass Community Theatre every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm until June 3rd. For more information or tickets log on to http://www.sambasstheatre.org