Beware: your mouth muscles may never recover from the jovial laughter to be had at University of Cincinnati CCM’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. With a dynamic cast and louder-than-life theatrics, this show is sure to put a smile on your face, have your magic feet tapping, and rip your heart out in the best way.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Beepremiered in 2005 and sets the trials and tribulations of adolescents in spelling bees to a sweeping score and hilarious book. Throughout the bee, we meet Rona and Panch, the adult bee moderators, and six distinct spellers. These six, Olive, William, Logainne, Chip, Marcy, and Leaf, range from a boy scout to a perfectionist, and throughout the show, we get to see their triumphant spelling mixed with their backstories. What may sound childish teeters the line between hilarity and sincerity in a way that has you laughing to tears. ‘The I Love You Song,’ in particular, shifts the comedic gravitas to introspection, and gives us a stellar three-part harmony.
There’s the multi-linguist, overachieving Marcy countered by the shy and sweet Olive. Chip, the boy scout, has an unfortunate problem with random erections, while Logainne learned everything she knows from her gay dads. Then there’s Leaf, whose siblings are also named after the outdoors, juxtaposed to William, an uptight, mucus-filled rule-follower. There are even audience members as spellers, who we watch comically interact with the cast. The distinct characters mirror so many facets of what it means to be a kid, and make for hilarious, if not cringe-worthy, moments we can all relate to.
Performances in Spelling Bee
As Rona and Blanch greet you in the lobby, the auditorium is filled with antics. One speller is desperately saving a seat for her absent father, and another is scootering across the lobby. It is clear–the fun starts at the door. Rona, played by Julia Schick, and Principal Blanch, played by Dan Klimko, are hilarious as moderators, and chew up the scenery with their contrasting dynamic. The most impressive moment of the show comes, though, from Sam Yousef, playing the comfort counselor Mitch. His stratospheric vocals have to be heard to be believed, and come in handy several times, including the aforementioned ‘I Love You Song.’
Regarding the spellers, each has a particular moment that cements their performance as stellar. From Logainne, played by Amanda Bishop, kneeling during the pledge of allegiance, to William, played by Nicholas Pattarini, and his magic foot antics, the physical comedy is half the fun. Marcy, played by Annalise Prentiss, can sing and jump rope simultaneously, and Chip, played by Andrew Burke, milks every tantrum to no avail. He even throws a bag of chips at an audience member when he is demoted to candy salesman–a true commitment to character.
Leaf, played by Joey Baccioco, emulates the anxiety and curiosity of his character, and acts with his entire body, moving almost like a human pretzel as he falls, jumps, or shuffles. However, it is Olive, played by Madison Osment, that has the true emotional pinnacle of the show. Her vocals are spot-on, but it is her genuine emotional range that makes her performance so affecting.
The show has a very clear-cut direction, by Chaz Walcott, from the wall dressings to the actors’ huge characterizations, and it fits the space nicely. The set, designed by Regan Densmore, features all the hallmarks of a middle school gymnasium, down to the basketball hoop and American flag, made more intimate thanks to the studio theatre space.
With such a lower-key technical show, the lighting design had room to shine, literally. Designed by Jessica Drayton, the exterior and overhead lighting pair well to create colorful stage pictures. During more fantasied moments, such as ‘Magic Foot,’ there is a dynamic array of lighting gobos and fast-paced cues that match the high pace of the script. The costumes, designed by Corey Cochran, help fill this colorful stage and differentiate from adult and child characters. There’s even a Jesus with golden wings that unfurl, if you can’t tell the show goes places.
Consistently remembered as one of the most hilarious musicals, Spelling Bee is a gleaming spark of joy during this bleak time of year. The dedication to characters and the combination of many moving elements create a small, but mighty day at the theatre. It is truly a testament to the power of student theatre, even if it does feature the word ‘apoop.’ Bonus points if you can spell chimerical after, too.
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