The cast of 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, courtesy of The White Theatre
By Marissa Carter
What could possibly be entertaining in a play about a spelling bee? This was the question my companion and I were discussing as we waited for the show to begin. We had both heard great things about the show and knew it was immensely popular, but we were skeptical. It didn’t help that we were looking at a very simple school gymnasium set. Just a section of bleachers, a microphone, and a caller’s table. The band was set up at the back of the stage, which promised to be an interesting arrangement.
Before the show began, Rona Lisa Peretti (Korie Murphy) and Douglas Panch (Jayson Chandley) made their way through the audience to meet some people and drum up excitement for “The Bee.” It worked. This first introduction let us know we were in for a treat since these characters, played by obviously talented actors, were a lot of fun.
The show begins with Rona Lisa having a flashback to her glory days in the spelling bee. We learn immediately that she has an abnormal attachment to the bee. After this revealing flashback, the spellers are introduced, along with the Comfort Counsellor, Mitch Mahoney (Bree Patterson) who is serving community service by handing out juice boxes to eliminated contestants.
These introductions are followed by an announcement that some of the contestants are missing. Rona Lisa then looks out to the audience and calls several names. Four audience members, apparently picked before the show, are taken up on stage and placed among the actors.
From this moment on, the show moves at a fast pace. The spelling bee is conducted exactly as I remember from childhood – but this one is so much more funny! Each contestant is called forward to spell a word and has the opportunity to ask for a definition, a sentence, and the language of origin. As the actors are called, the audience is invited into the thought process of each speller, and their stories are revealed through flashbacks and songs. The actors play multiple roles during flashbacks and do an amazing job of coaching the guest contestants from the audience, which gives the whole show a smooth, natural flow.
Our hosts for this somewhat chaotic competition could not have been cast better. Murphy plays her character expertly. She is perky and optimistic about everything. Chandley, on the other hand, brings a little cynicism to the host table. His increasingly sarcastic quips and definitions are a hilarious medium for moving the show forward.
All of the guest contestants are eliminated by the end of act one, leaving room for deeper character developments and tougher competition in the second act. In both acts the pacing is perfect, and the audience is saved from spelling tedium by several fun musical montage numbers that cover multiple rounds of competition.
The music in the production offers a lot of variety, ranging from fun, energetic, choreographed dance numbers to soft, thoughtful songs. The band doesn’t miss a beat, and the cast displays phenomenal range and vocal control throughout. This is especially impressive since some of the songs feature full acrobatics along with energetic dancing.
As good as all the music is, I found a personal favorite in “The I Love You Song” sung by Olive (Madelyn Padget), Olive’s mom (Korrie Murphy), and Olive’s dad (Jayson Chandley). This song is so beautiful, and beautifully performed, that it pulls you out of the gymnasium and into Olive’s heart. This impression is helped by spectacular lighting and staging decisions that make the song as pleasing to the eyes as it is to the ears.
What could possibly be entertaining in a play about a spelling bee? If it’s the 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE – Everything! This is a great show that is very well performed at the White Theatre. It has a fresh and spontaneous feel that guarantees a good time for all audience members.
25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is playing at the White Theatre through February 18, 2018. For more information visit www.thejkc.org.