Spelling it out: "The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee" delivers one big cliché
Directed by Janie Jones, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a musical that delves deeper into education and takes a look at the kids that don’t fit in.
Through lively musical performances and over the top acting, the character’s personalities came to life.
The story starts off with a flashback scene of Rona Peretti (Natalie Kahn) at the spelling bee, spelling her way to a trophy. Reminiscing on her glory days, Rona becomes conscious and introduces the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
The students check in and everything seems to be going well except Olive (Hayley Howe) doesn’t have the $25 entrance fee. She has a nonexistent relationship with her parents and neither answer the phone when she calls.
Attendance is taken and the story takes an interesting turn, three names are called of former theater students who receive walk on roles to participate in the production. Coincidentally, it happened to be theater students as any person in attendance could enter to win a chance to participate in the musical with the stipulation that you have to be willing to be made fun of.
The contestants start the spelling bee and immediately some begin to fumble with the words, although the three special guests are given easy words so they can remain on stage.
As each contestant steps up to the mic, Rona introduces a strange fact about them before they have to spell their word. Amusing dialogue ensues about the characters’ lives as they struggle through being an adolescent.
Inappropriate humor was a big theme of the show and the director held nothing back with the jokes about boners and pop culture references.
While most of the characters represent clichés, there are standout characters like Leaf Coneybear (Aaron Bertucio). Leaf is a whimsical character who dresses in his pajamas and a cape and carries around a little devilish teddy bear who would randomly scream into the mic like he was the lead singer of an emo punk band.
When Leaf would go up to the mic and attempt to spell a word, he would get stunned and fall into this state of paralysis where he would magically come up with the spelling of the word.
The rest of the characters battle with social awkwardness, puberty overachievement, divorced parents and even an LGBT couple. The musical takes a look at social issues and even highlights the hard of hearing by having SMC Student Nura Ferdowski sign the whole production.
Wit and charm are what carried this musical instead of the typical cliché love story that exists in most musicals. For a bit there was no mention of any feelings or love until Olive started to flirt with science genius Barfee (Julian Schwartzman), but he shrugged off any initial advances. It isn’t until the end of the musical where they share a brief moment of flirtation.
The musical doesn’t reveal any new outlooks or revelations, however, it does offer compelling storytelling and shows that no matter how different the characters are, they can all share in camaraderie over something they are equally passionate about.
Where the musical fell flat wasn’t the acting but arguably the most important, the singing. While there were times where the songs actually advanced the storytelling, there were just as many moments where it felt like the characters were singing their every thought. To give it some perspective, they fit over 20 musical numbers into a production that was less than two hours long.
While the director could have used this opportunity to weave the story in a more subtle way, it spelled out every last word in a way that felt like one huge pun.
In the small time slot there were some strong musical numbers such as “The I Love You Song,” a ballad that talked about Olive’s parents being from different worlds, and even though they weren’t always there for her, they love her.
“I Speak Six Languages” was another interesting number that is relatable to college students. It’s if you’ve ever thought about being carefree and less responsible, just questioning one’s self in a practical way.
The takeaway from the musical should not be that it was bad or that all musicals are inherently bad, but that you have to have the capacity for them. If you like quirky, fun musical productions then you should be in for a treat.