The world of competitive spelling might not seem H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S to most people, but those people probably have not seen “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Millersville’s All Campus Musical Organization (ACMO) performed the play this past weekend in the SMC MPR.
“Putnam” is a one-act musical comedy about six kids with interesting personalities competing in a spelling bee run by three really strange adults. In its time on Broadway, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two.
Because Lyte Auditorium currently is not being used, ACMO was in a bit of bind when it came to picking a show. “Our choices of shows were limited to whatever we could pull off in the MPR,” said Peter King, who played Vice Principal Panch.
Without the use of Lyte, finding a practice space could be challenging; the cast of “Putnam” found themselves rehearsing all over campus. “When we couldn’t book Dutcher, we ended up in the basement of Hobbs, and we were even in Chryst for a few of them,” King said. “We had a wonderful production team that worked out all the problems we encountered along the way.”
Managing a cast of nine along with the six musicians in the pit orchestra proved to be difficult, but with a little adjustment and a lot of support, everyone involved was able to make it work.
The members of the pit orchestra are all current or former music majors at Millersville, and most have been involved with a lot of past theater productions. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has no fewer than 30 songs packed into one act, so for the orchestra to seamlessly move from one song to the next requires quite a bit of talent. The only downside was the volume of the music, which sometimes overpowered the voices of the cast; this had more to do with the location of the performance than any other technical issue.
The talent of the cast only highlights the hilarity of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” At times a little inappropriate, it is impossible to not laugh at the idiosyncrasies of both the spellers and the adults in charge.
From Leaf Coneybear, a red cape clad young man who spells in an altered, almost demonic state complete with a creepy voice, to Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, who has an adorable speech impediment and thinks that Father’s Day and Gay Pride Week should be combined in honor of her two dads.
And do not forget William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay, thank you), who spells with his foot, and Chip Tolentino, who is asked to spell a word immediately following an unfortunate incident caused by looking at Leaf’s sister. Hint: It rhymes with election.
If the spelling contestants are odd, the adults are borderline dysfunctional. There’s Mitch, escort to eliminated contestants whose presence at the Bee is a condition of his parole, and Vice Principal Panch, who has returned to the Bee after an “incident” at a previous competition.
“Panch was, without a doubt, the most enjoyable role I’ve ever played,” said King. “The freedom I had to improvise was both exhilarating and frightening at the same time.”
Not only was the cast enormously funny, but they were also amazing singers. “I love musicals, so the singing was my favorite,” said Millersville junior Ashley Donmoyer, “Everyone had an amazing voice.”
The number of songs could be exhausting for the cast, “Especially when doing more than one show in a day,” King said. “After running around and jumping on and off the stage in ‘Pandemonium’ I usually had to take a hasty gulp of water during the applause. I think that was my favorite number.”
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is unique in that members of the audience are invited to participate in the spelling bee at every performance. Because the audience changes night to night, the cast has a lot of room to improvise, often coming up with lines on the spot.
“In the script, very little is written about what happens when the audience volunteers approach the microphone,” King said. “Brieanne (Rogers, who played Rona Lisa Peretti) and I had complete control of what words were used, what ‘fun-facts’ were provided, and in what order they were eliminated.”
The audience seemed to love the spelling itself, particularly the definitions and sentences provided for the contestants’ benefit. When one contestant asked the judges to use the word ‘cow’ in a sentence, she was told, “Spell cow.”
One of the biggest laughs came when a contestant was asked to spell the word ‘zuuzuu’ which is apparently prison slang for candy. When Vice Principal Panch was asked to use it in a sentence, he replied, “When Billy went on his field trip to Sing-Sing, he learned that bending over to pick up his zuuzuu was a no-no.”
Keeping straight faces among the cast could be difficult, especially when delivering lines like, “Guacamole; the Mexican pudding,” when asked to use ‘Mexican’ in a sentence. “We were cracking smiles even during dress rehearsal week,” King said. “It was really hard, especially for Bri Kozier (who played Marcy Park) and I, who had to be pretty serious in every situation.”
In case you were wondering, William Barfee was the winner of the Bee at Sunday’s performance, narrowly defeating Olive Ostrovsky. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” also features a cameo by Jesus, who appears to inform Marcy Park that he does not care at all about spelling bees. Even though Jesus was not into it, the audience and cast absolutely was.
If you happened to miss ACMO’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” you made a huge M-I-S-T-A-K-E.