This charming and hilarious show was just what my exhausted heart needed. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, how nice it is to participate in live theater again. This one-act show provides laughter and heart and is worth seeing during its short duration.
The name of the series reveals the plot and the actors really bring the series to life. As school-aged children, each candidate has a unique story that led them to the Bee. Who will win? Can I even spell these words? The audience is included in the action and some members of the audience are called on stage to participate in the Bee. I’m pretty sure they were plants, but inviting spectators to participate brings a different energy to the show. I liked it.
The band is also on stage throughout the show. I can’t express how much I love having the band on stage. It brings so much charm and ambiance and I think the band should always be on stage. I also enjoyed the contemporary updates to the script. When jokes or outdated snippets can be updated to include current events, the laughter is genuine and out of control. I won’t reveal any of the jokes, but there were a couple of times I couldn’t stop laughing and had to forget about life for a while.
Each character has their own song, performed brilliantly by this cast. There is no shortage of music and when the actors sing together their voices blend in perfect harmony. I will never tire of seeing a truly unified and successful ensemble and this cast never misses a beat.
The first character presented to us is Rona Lisa Perretti, played by Aydan Bruce. Bruce has a great voice and his character fitted in perfectly with the children. Since the cast is small, the actors play multiple characters and Bruce also plays Olive’s mother. The genius of directing is that actors transform into other characters by changing or adding clothing. The action doesn’t have to stop and the cast doesn’t have to burn out with quick behind-the-scenes changes. I was so impressed with the cohesive performance, despite all the moving parts.
As the contestants arrive, the audience is introduced to their personalities and quirks. Each spelling has a different process and you can tell the actors are having so much fun. Jonice Bernard plays Olive Ostrovsky, the new calm girl with abandonment issues. Bernard has a wonderful stage presence. Olive is shy, but understands her strengths and is determined to be successful despite her misfortunes. Bernard fully understands his character and the audience can’t help but cheer him on.
As Leaf Coneybear (and one of Logainne’s fathers), Wesley Bradstreet is superb. From his puppet cloak to his luminous shoes, Bradstreet perfectly captures Leaf’s insecurities and the pressure he feels from his family. Lina Forero plays Logainne Schwartz and Grubennière. Logainne is an aspiring politician and has daddy issues. It’s a brilliant spelling and she has too much character to be a politician. Forero is a delight. She’s believable and funny, which is a winning combination.
There is nothing unfortunate about Leo Gallegos’ portrayal of Chip Tolentino. I promise you will laugh at him and with him as Chip participates in the Bee. There is a certain nuance required to sing on delicate subjects and Gallegos nails it.
Liuyi Jiang plays Marcy Park. Marcy is smart, dedicated and determined to win; until it isn’t. This dichotomy is so much fun to watch because Jiang bends over it and never flexes. Jiang plays the character with aplomb and grace, which adds to the humor. These children are good beyond their years and there is a lesson to be learned in the way they deal with the adversity placed on them.
Teddy Ladley plays William Barfee (pronounced “bar fay”). William really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities when the show begins, but he learns a lot along the way and Ladley helps audiences warm to his character. The magic of the portrayal is not just in her footing, but in her commitment to the physicality required for the role.
The last two players are Chris Elliott who plays Mitch Mahoney (and others) and Seth Morton who plays Vice Principal Douglas Panch. Elliott is exuberant and successfully inhabits every character he plays. His energy is contagious and he secures the audience’s attention the entire time he is on stage. Morton is deliciously smart. As smart as you’d expect an assistant manager to be. Morton also plays him a bit smug, which is about the situation he’s in. Panch clearly hates his life, but Morton doesn’t wallow in it. I think that’s why his character is so funny.
The creative team did a terrific job with the set, lighting, choreography, and sound. It all feels so intimate that audiences never feel very far from the action. Directed and choreographed by Seth Tucker, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Contest is splendid. Presented by ASU Music Theater and Opera at the Evelyn Smith Music Theater, you can purchase tickets here. The show only runs until October 3, so don’t miss it. I promise you will leave the theater happier.
Many thanks to the production and stage crew for this show. I never want to leave them out and things work so well thanks to everyone involved; props, costumes and divine intervention deserve all the applause. Well done to the people behind the scenes who are making the scene happen.
Photo credit: Reg Madison