The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee a Night of F-U-N

The 25th Annual
Putnam County Spelling Bee
tells the story of six awkward middle-schoolers
as they compete for the top prize in the—you guessed it—25th Annual
Putnam County Spelling Bee. While a play about a spelling bee may sound like a
snore, this one absolutely is not. Rachel Sheinkin’s book and William Finn’s music and lyrics manage to weave intricately detailed and
poignant slices of each of the nine characters’ lives with hilariously clever
one-liners, always entertaining audience participation and emotional music to
create a theater experience that is not one to be missed.  

If you want to have a good time and
a good laugh, it’s worth the trip down to Pomona’s Seaver Theater this weekend.
The cast of the show is very entertaining. And, quite unwittingly I’m sure,
this production of Spelling Bee has
managed to carry the theme of discovering students’ unexpected and exciting
talents into the casting process as well, as two of the show-stealing
performances were delivered by first-year boys—one of whom is a Pomona-Pitzer
football player, no less.

David Leathers CM ’15 as the cringeworthy
yet lovable William Barfée delivers by far the most laughs. Matt O’Connor’s PO ’15 small but memorable appearances
as ex-con and “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney stay with you long after he
retreats to his corner of the stage where he is stationed for most of the
performance. I certainly hope to see much more of these rookies during their
time at the Claremont Colleges.

Also remarkable was the effort to
incorporate the unique talents of cast members: Matt Helm PO ’12, who played
Chip Tolentino, and Samantha Hill PO ’14, who played Marcy Park, showed off skills
on the drums and on the dance floor, respectively, talents that were put to use
in refreshingly creative ways, thanks to director Jack Reuler and choreographer
Jessica Harris.

With a script as witty and well put
together as Spelling Bee, you can’t
go wrong. It’s impossible not to
enjoy a production of this show. Yet there were certain aspects of
this production I found lacking. Certain technical elements, like the
incongruous incorporation of Top 40 hits as background music and the constant
but unnecessary use of projection, seemed gimmicky; cast energy seemed to be
lower than it should have been; the staging came off as too static at times.  

My biggest complaints with this production,
though, do not fall to any of the talented performers in the show, but to
Reuler, the show’s director. There were so many opportunities for truly
touching moments that I felt were wasted in this production, simply because the
pace was off or audience attention was directed elsewhere (I will elaborate at
the risk of revealing minor spoilers).

When Leaf Coneybear, a decidedly
odd duck played delightfully by Haley Brown PZ ‘13, valiantly asks for her
compensatory juice box as she leaves the stage having lost the bee but winning
her self-confidence, I wanted to be
inspired to stand up and cheer, but I was not. When Olive Ostrovsky (Manya
Janowitz PO ’15) painfully realizes that her given word, “chimerical” (meaning
“wildly fanciful, highly unlikely”) may describe her image of a home life with
loving and present parents during the highly emotional number, “The I Love You
Song,”  I wanted to be moved to tears, but I was not.

Part of this may have been due to
the misguided interpretation of Spelling Bee
as “a play that has songs,” as opposed to its usual representation as a full-blown Broadway musical, which resulted in the songs—which take up the majority
of stage time—feeling like interruptions in the production as opposed to
windows into the inner lives of the characters, as is their function. Taking
the emphasis away from the songs and redirecting it toward a “naturalistic”
approach with the actors did not at all effectively highlight the emotional
arcs of these truly lovable characters. 

It must be said, though, that I love this show—I am extremely
familiar with it and have seen two professional productions in the past, so it
is possible that, as is often the case, for example, when beloved book characters fall flat
on the silver screen, my expectations for this production were unrealistic.

In the end, who’s to say why I was
not moved? And is that really necessary to have an enjoyable theater
experience? I’m certainly not complaining. And you won’t either, when you go to
see the performance.

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
opened March
1, and has performances today and tomorrow at 8 p.m. with matinee
performances at 2 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday. Tickets are available for purchase
at the Seaver Box Office, in the Seaver Theater courtyard from 11 a.m.—4 p.m. today,
and up to one hour before each performance. Gen Admin $10. Students, Faculty,
Staff, Seniors $5. 

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