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Theater Review: Putnam County Spelling Bee

Mark Bugnaski
WMU Theatre

The Western Michigan University Theatre is currently staging a production of "The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" outdoors in Western’s Miller Fountain Plaza. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

The beauty of this upbeat, small cast musical is that it cleverly combines the dramatic competition of a middle school spelling bee with the quirks and immature eccentricities of its adolescent contestants.

The show has a lot to say about what constitutes the categories of winners as well as losers, both sore and graceful. Like some of the words the contestants are challenged to spell, each of these categories contains a higher degree of difficulty than one might think.

For the show I saw on May 29th, Director Jay Berkow’s outdoor staging overcame potentially adverse elements like wind, bright afternoon sunlight, and sound. The result was an energetic, funny, and sometimes poignant production that held an appreciative audience for the show’s 90-minute duration.

Credit WMU Theatre
WMU Theatre
The cast of the reviewed performance of Putnam County Spelling Bee

A key to success for “Putnam County Spelling Bee” is the creation of nine vibrant characters able to tell engaging stories about their lives through song, dance, flashbacks, and, of course, the spelling of words that sometimes speaks volumes about the contestant. Berkow’s cast delivers on all levels.

Meghan Corbett as Rona, the Bee’s enthusiastic emcee, introduces the contestants and welcomes the audience. In a flashback to the third annual contest, she merrily celebrates clinching her title by spelling “syzygy.” If you had to look that word up too, you have an insight into what these middle schoolers are faced with.

As Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, the official word pronouncer, Aaron Capello lucidly renders “The Spelling Rules,” a number that clearly explains the contest’s format and sets up future failures and successes. Although Panch’s emotional meltdown later in the show seems unmotivated in the script, it underscores the pressure that surrounds contestants and judges.

The show’s most intriguing and sympathetic character is Olive, played by Lulu Bushman. Olive arrives alone at the Bee, without the $25 contest fee, apparently deserted by a mother away on a spiritual quest and a no-show dad. Bushman delivers one of the show’s most powerful numbers, “The I Love You Song,” singing about the home she desires, as she imagines her parents singing with her. Shortly afterward, before spelling “chimerical,” the word’s definition is read to Olive. The meaning relates to the illusion she’s created in song. The irony falls on her like a slap to the face.

Olive develops a friendship with the overconfident and mucous-challenged, William Barfee, played by Ben Marshall. That’s “Bar-fey” not “Barf-ee,” he cautions all who speak his name. Barfee’s special talent, tracing letters of the word he spells on the floor with his gold sneaker, is celebrated in a smooth soft shoe number “Magic Foot.” Marshall sprinkles his role with properly annoying nerdy traits, yet skillfully reveals his character’s heart through his concern for Olive.

Other spellers in the Bee include Isabella Jolie Abuan as child prodigy Marcy Park. Abuan, whose character is pushed by her parents to succeed, runs the gamut of Park’s stellar abilities, from acrobatics, to languages, to soccer in a frenetic and winning number, “Marcy’s Epiphany.”

Another key rival in the contest is Leaf Coneybear, portrayed by Gav TenBroeke. TenBroeke presents a character who knows his own weakness in “I’m Not That Smart,” but compensates by spelling words beyond his comprehension by going into a trance.

Other standouts are Jesus Barajas as Chip, the frustrated school baseball pitcher whose spelling efforts are undone by the untimely manifestation of his state of sexual arousal.

The effect of home life on schoolwork is frequently the focal point of this show. Kathryn Jeager’s revelatory portrayal of Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, the daughter of two bickering fathers, yields an insight into the kind of stressful home that produces the brightest students, as well as some of the unhappiest, with her patter-like plaintive lament, “Woe is Me.”

Enzo Santiago as Mitch, the school counsellor, dispenses juice boxes and consolation to those eliminated from the Bee. His rousing gospel-flavored rendition of “Prayer of the Comfort Counsellor” provides an uplifting moment for both the audience and those who misspell a word.

The WMU Theatre’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will likely spell entertainment for audiences who see it. The double-cast show plays through Sunday, June 6th, in repertory with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”