Fun is Spelled P-U-T-N-A-M
Let me be frank: there are a lot of heavy theatre pieces on the island right now. They are not heavy for the sake of being heavy, and are meant to uplift and empower the heart and soul. Certain plays question the status quo, challenge ideas, and help open the audience’s eyes, if just for a glimpse, into a world of which they are unfamiliar with.
Then, there are plays whose core mission seems to be to entertain. Comedies are equally as important as dramas, as no emotional spectrum is complete without happiness and laughter. A comedic production will also live beyond it’s laughs, as most writers incorporate heartfelt messages and relationships within their crowd-slaying quips and well concocted humorous vignettes. THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is no exception in this regard- the small yet plucky cast of young students run laps around the audience with their spelling antics, and laced within the veneer of a spelling bee are tales of adolescence, growth, loneliness, acceptance, and integrity.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, currently running at Mamiya Theatre, has music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, concept by Rebecca Feldman, and is directed by Bro. Gary Morris, SM. Morris has assembled a strong team to capture the feel of a high school gym set up for a spelling bee, starting with scenic designer Claire Paul. Between her use of modular set pieces and what I can only describe as a cool, gigantic, detailed mural (it’s like a projection screen that was painted on, but softer) alongside the other-worldliness of one student’s fantasy, Paul creates vibrant and functional environments that give the cast plenty of room to play in. Paul’s work really pops thanks to Katelyn Shedden’s lighting design working hand in hand with her set, and Shedden’s design is clear, sharp, and really helps sell some of the more outlandish ideas of the play, like a student who appears not to be too bright but has an avian familiar that spells the words for him in a warg-like state. Timothy Carney’s orchestra is delightful to listen to, and were well balanced with the voices onstage during this production; Carney as musical director also has his work shine with how clear and bright the cast sounded during their many musical numbers. Sr. Grace Capellas designed the costumes for the plays, and each character has a dynamic look that immediately captures who they are. Brad Powell’s choreography is simple, pedestrian, and often chatotic, but the nature of the production lends itself to this simple madness as the “youth” take the stage in not always the cleanest of manners, but sell it with all their heart, leaving for endearing dance numbers and moments.
The structure of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is fairly simple- the audience is attending the titular annual bee, and four audience members will be escorted to the stage to be a part of the production. There, we experience the expected pressures of a spelling bee: utilizing tics and techniques used to spell, the shock of getting a hard word, or even worse, someone else getting an exceptionally easy word, and being able to ask the definition, type of word (verb, noun, adjective), language of origin, and having the given word be used in a sentence. The four audience members are slowly weeded out of the bee, and every time that a competitor is eliminated, the cast breaks out into the “Goodbye” song, a catchy, hilarious, and low-key catty way of wishing well to those competitors who are forced to depart. In between all the madness an actual bee holds, the audience is treated to the many brief yet meaty storylines of the students, and as we learn more about them we start to root for them all to take home the bee.
The cast of fun and endearing children are portrayed by actors that appear to be older than implied (if I heard correctly, Loganne’s (Kimberlee Stone) the president of her elementary’s LGBTQ club). Ultimately, age is a number and the students are meant to be more “youth” than a specific age, which the student cast carries out with aplomb. Stone’s Loganne S. is delightful as she speaks with a lisp and tries to make friends with everyone, offering to shake her hand to those she comes across, while at the same time trying to please her two dads (Neil O’Brien, Elijah Abramo). Anthony Lee’s Chip Tolentino is hilarious to watch as we see a student burdened with not only his own hubris of winning last year’s bee but with the blossoming effects of adolescence as well, as a fellow competitor catches his eye and he looks into his heart to sing about his forced erection (a gag sold well by Capella’s costume design). Kainoa Enos’ Leaf Coneybear is not the brightest bulb, but wins audiences with his heart and soul, and his little bird friend that Enos puppeteers as he has strokes of spelling brilliance. Playing the prodigy Marcy Park is Sofia Vela, who commits to her role’s icy character traits. As a student who ranked top 10 on the national bee (Chip didn’t even break top 20), she effortlessly learns new things and talents, albeit seemingly alone, as Marcy ices out the other students trying to get to know her, even not singing during some numbers (but doing the choreography nonetheless- it’s great). ‘Aulani Oka’s performance as Olive Ostrovsky is sweet and tender, played with an honesty and yearning that is sure to tug on everyone’s heart strings as she arrives to the bee without her parents, waiting on bated breath for her father to come walking through the door. The last of the students is William Barfee, which is never pronounced correctly, played by Angelo Oasay. Having to adopt a vocal/throat/mucus condition for his role sounds like it’d be more taxing and troublesome than it’s worth, but Oasay powers through and delivers his odd character’s lines with strength, confidence, and a nice range of emotions as William gets to know Olive a bit more. Alongside the students is Rona Lisa Peretti played by Suzanne Green, a delightful host that savors the bee just as much, if not more, than when she was spelling for her own bee in her youth. Running proceedings with her is the Vice Principal Douglas Panch, played by Robert Iokepa. Iokepa appears to be stern and straight-laced, but is wildly entertaining with his unique deadpan delivery of many of the play’s radical lines. David Herman plays the warm hearted Mitch Mahoney, who is doing community service by being the school’s counselling serivce, being there with a hug and a juice box and encouraging all the students that falter during the bee to continue on and not let this loss define them. Alongside all of these characters, many of the actors double on roles, and some radical quick changes are made with alarming ease. The actors, alongside Capella’s design, are champs for making these quick changes work.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is well written and well performed, and I’m sure Morris is proud of the production he has assembled. Be sure not to miss out on this zesty and fun experience! THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is running at the Mamiya Theatre this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and closes Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets are available at the door or via the link here.