Reviewed by Robin Schwartzkopf
Everyone can relate to at least one of the characters in this charming musical from SPARC’s teen players, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This play truly is for the misfit in all of us. Complete with compelling musical numbers (both solo and ensemble), excellent characterizations, and a witty script, this production does not disappoint.
This play reminds the audience that quirkiness is not a flaw, that being clever is important, and that winning isn’t everything. It’s chock full of morals, stories, and laughs. Maybe there’s a bit of the oddball Leaf Coneybear in all of us. Chip Tolentino shares his uneasiness with puberty with the rest of us teens. As a somewhat unique personality myself, I genuinely appreciated all of the characters for what they were: kids. None of them were flawless little angels; they all had internal struggles. None of them were even stereotypical nerds; they all had their own valid reasons for finding comfort in spelling.
Spelling Bee is set up like, you guessed it, an actual competition. As each kid approaches the microphone and looks into the eyes of the adult moderators (also played by teens), the audience can see the fear in his or her eyes, and sense the disappointment when the fateful elimination bell rings. As the play continues and more and more competitors leave, the tension in the theater is intense. But somehow, amidst this stressful backdrop, more humor arises and more emotions are explored. Particularly insightful musical interludes include Olive Ostrowsky’s desire to reunite with her mother in India, and flashbacks exploring the challenges of home life for Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere and her two dads. These side stories are touching and heartwarming, charming and clever.
Every member of the cast plays an entirely different character. The spellers vary in size, shape, story, and attitude. They all share only one trait: a passion for spelling. What else could connect a quirky, cape-wearing kid and a girl-crazy Eagle Scout? How else would a preppy schoolgirl and an ultra-nerd with a “magic” foot meet? And let’s not forget the only non-spelling young character in the show: Mitch Mahoney is a lovable delinquent meeting his community service requirement as a comfort counselor for eliminated spellers.
Not only is the cast amazing, but it comes in duplicate: SPARC has two extremely talented casts of kids excited about acting, singing, and dancing their hearts out in this musical. The delightful and entertaining production includes audience interaction at times and hilarity for the entire performance. Both adults and children (twelve and up most notably) will enjoy this amusing musical.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through November 17 at SPARC Center on Hamilton Street. Visit SPARC for tickets and showtimes.