Review: CMTS’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

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Bwogger Sarah Harty reviews Columbia Musical Theater Society’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, directed by Nina Lam BC ’19, produced by Emeline Bookspan BC ’18, stage managed by Clare Bradley CC ’20, and choreographed by Harmony Maria Graziano CC ’19, with Anna Bryan CC ’18 as the Music Director. 

Is this what stress culture looks like?

Like most William Finn shows (he wrote the music and lyrics, with Rachel Sheinkin authoring the book), “Spelling Bee” is a bit ridiculous. Every character is overdramatic, stereotyped, and not very lifelike – they’re closer to something you’d find on a Saturday morning cartoon than sitting next to you in class. Every “Spelling Bee” cast and crew’s job is to bring spirit and humanity to these cardboard cutouts. Nina Lam’s production does this beautifully, filling the tiny Glicker-Milstein Theatre black box with laughter, tears, heart, and a harsh dose of reality.

The plot is simple enough, save for one flashback at the beginning, the entire show is set during the bee itself. The sympathetic but stern Rona Lisa Peretti (Anna Stacy, SPS ’17), the bee’s winner in its third year, serves as judge, along with Vice Principal Douglas Panch (William Cagle, CC ’20).
The contestants are as follows: Defending champion Chip Tolentino (Jacob Iglitzin CC ’19), politically conscious lisper Logainne Schwartzandgrubennaire (Genevive Joers, CC ’21), homeschooled Leaf Coneybear (Michael Kirschner, CC ’21), snotty and put-upon William Barfée (Talmage Wise, CC ’18), overachiever Marcy Park (Rachel Greenfeld, BC ’19), and shy Olive Ostrovsky (Sophia Houdaigui, BC ’21). Rounding out the cast is Adam Glusker (CC ’21) as comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney.

At the start of the bee, little is known of each character beyond assumptions, but with each solo, you find yourself becoming enamored with each one of them. You relate to Logainne’s overbearing dads or Olive’s lack of parental presence. Leaf came third in his own bee and is only there by a stroke of luck while Marcy placed in the top ten at Nationals, you enjoy the foil until Leaf declares he’s “Not That Smart” and Marcy teeters on the edge of collapse under the pressure of always having to win.

Some standout moments included Wise’s mastery of physical comedy during “Magic Foot”, which was met with peals of laughter, Joers’ impressively long final note of “Woe is Me”, and Iglitzin’s cameo as a gay Jesus Christ. The recurring “Goodbye” songs are cheerfully morbid in perfect harmony. For me, the real highlight was “The I Love You Song”, sung by Olive and her absent parents. While spelling the word “chimerical”, meaning desired but unattainable, Olive imagines her own chimera of supportive parents, doubled by Stacy and Glusker. The three are arguably the strongest singers of the cast, and succeeded in causing more than a few tears to fall, including mine.

One of the best things about “Spelling Bee” is that no two productions are alike. Four audience members are brought up at the beginning of the show and compete in the bee with the rest of the cast, often with hilarious results. Characters also make contemporary references that got some of the biggest laughs of the night. It’s also perfectly relatable for college students: we are all familiar with the pressure to be perfect, both from our parents and our peers. Who knew a show about precocious third graders could be so real?

Cover art via Pinterest

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