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My God, Those Med Students Can Sing: Bwog Reviews BHP’s Spelling Bee

Last Friday, Arts Editor Riva Weinstein attended the Bard Hall Players’ production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Columbia University Medical Campus, with photographer Sophie Tobin. The show was directed by Jenna Lanz, music directed by Robbie Berg, and produced by Joseph Cornett, Sarah Householder, Rachel Pride, and Zackery White.

For most of us down here on 116th, the medical campus may as well be another world. What goes on up there in Washington Heights? Do they dream like us? Do they sing? Does their local bagel shop hold a candle to Absolute? Ever since the ancients sealed away the medical campus centuries ago with the curse of 168th Street Station construction, it has remained unknown to us: silent as Roman marble, cold as the subway wind.

But no longer. Last weekend, two brave Bwoggers ventured into the valley of the shadow of death, and we can confirm: they do sing.

Well.

Last Friday night’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee went off without a hitch, wrangling a huge cast, crew, pit, and some very enthusiastic audience participants into a truly entertaining performance. Spelling Bee, a mid-2000’s musical comedy conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music & lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, weaves the lives and struggles of six adolescents into a single night of competition at a county spelling bee. The Bard Hall Players stayed true to the spirit of the show, balancing the humor of the contestants’ pubescent crises with tremendous humanity and sympathy for every single character.

The Bard Hall Players is the sole theater troupe of the CU Irving Medical Center. It also accepts students from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Explaining why they chose Spelling Bee, director Jenna Lanz said she simply wanted to pick a musical that was “a lot of fun for every person involved: cast, crew, pit, and audience.”

After all, what’s more fun than a bunch of college-age adults pretending to be hormonal, pubescent middle schoolers? That’s right: a bunch of grad students pretending to be hormonal, pubescent middle schoolers.

Standout among the cast was Steve Flaherty, playing bee winner William Barfée, an eccentric boy with a “magic foot” which he uses to spell his words out on the ground. His blustery, cantankerous delivery had us nearly crying with laughter for the entire show. Sarah Householder, as Olive Ostrovsky, had us shedding tears for a different reason: her restrained, heartbreaking rendition of “The I Love You Song,” in which Olive fantasizes about what she wishes her parents would tell her.

Rhyan Goldman, Evan Hess, Aili Klein, and Corey Trowbridge all captured the audience’s hearts with irresistibly funny and sympathetic versions of the other bee contestants. We truly enjoyed the dynamic between peppy, classically-trained bee moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Ali Breneman) and a man in the “dumpster fire” phase of his career, Vice Principal Douglas Panch (James Belarde).

Spelling Bee is a show that requires audience participation for the “spelling bee” element, and hats must be removed to the Bard Hall Players for not just tolerating this participation, but exploiting it, to very impressive results. One audience participant, for example, was apparently a competitive Rubix Cube solver. Rona Lisa Peretti produced a cube, and the cast and audience counted up together while he solved it onstage. (Twenty-one seconds, not bad at all.)

Audience participation also produced some of the funniest moments in the show. (“Your word is ‘cow.’” “May I have the definition, please?” “It means cow.” “May I have the definition without the word in the definition?” “MOOOOO.”)

It is impressive that the Bard Hall Players, an inclusive theater group that accepts all who audition, managed to incorporate a cast of forty to fifty people into a nine-actor show. It is even more impressive that they did it without making the stage feel crowded, or rendering the musical numbers messy and chaotic (except when desired – e.g., “Pandemonium”). In fact, the extra cast members created some beautiful harmonies and added a Broadwayesque feeling of “big joy” to the intimate musical. The choreography (by Kathryn Birkenbach and Ellen Brown) was fun and consistently surprising, especially in “I Speak Six Languages” and “Pandemonium.”

Director Lanz explained how she worked flexibly with actors to accommodate their busy schedules, allowing chorus members to participate in as many numbers as they desired. Still, cast and crew had to make sacrifices to attend Spelling Bee rehearsals, squeezing out time for song and dance between their intensive classwork and, for some, long hours of inpatient rotations.

“This group has been a source of light and joy in my life,” said Lanz. “You look forward to it at the end of the day, even if it’s a busy day.”

BHP produces one musical in the fall and two plays in the spring. Come spring, having pierced the darkness once, we at Bwog may venture to pierce it again; and, thanking whatever gods may be for our unconquerable souls, head uptown for another play by some of the only theater kids we’ve ever seen who are probably going to make more money than us.

Congratulations to the cast and crew of BHP’s Spelling Bee!

Image via Sophie Tobin

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