The Princeton Festival brings the former Tony Award-winning Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to town. The book was written by Rachel Sheinkin, and directed and choreographed by Melissa Firlit. It’s playing in the Matthews Acting Studio in the Lewis Center for the Arts.
Firlit’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee captured all of the emotional back-stories that children bring onto the stage of this annual bee. It dealt with parental support, or lack thereof, methods used to recall spelling, fear of failure, and the need of comfort after things went awry. It made me sympathize with contestants who seem confident and robotic to the public, but below the surface have the same insecurities as everybody else.
The musical retains its uniqueness, by inviting four audience members on stage to compete with the six actors in the role of a contestant. You can sign up to participate 30 minutes before the show begins. This would be a once in a lifetime experience for those interested, and adds an extra level of humor as the audience members try to keep up with the actors. The audience is also treated as the audience of the bee. There is additional interaction with the audience, which enhances the performance in this very intimate theater.
The scene began with Rona Lisa Perretti (Emily Schexnaydre) entering the gym and having a flashback of winning the bee as a child. As the spellers are introduced, idiosyncrasies, strengths and deficiencies are divulged. Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (Amanda Berry) spells words out with her finger on her arm to get a visual. Dressed in a homemade superhero costume, insecure Leaf Coneybear (Jaime Green) gets a sudden burst of clarity to spell words. Shy Olive Ostrovsky (Charity Farrell) has the dictionary memorized. Nerdy and preppy William Barfée (Ryan Corridoni), dressed in green shorts with blue spouting whales, uses his “magic foot” to spell out words on the floor to get a visual. Boy scout and reigning champion Chip Tolentino (Jonathan Zeng) is easily distracted by girls, and overachiever Marcy Park (Nicole Acevedo) speaks six languages.
Perretti calls four audience members to the stage to compete amongst the actors, followed by introducing the official pronouncer Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Patrick James). Panch introduces Mitch Mahoney (Jerrial Young) as the comfort counselor, though his appearance is intimidating to the spellers. He must to assist to fulfill his court mandated community service obligation.
The acting was superb by all. I in particular found Jerrial Young intriguing since he offered three personas wrapped into two characters. His supporting role was that of the comfort counselor. He came out with an intimidating urban gait, quickly motioned toward the spellers and made them flinch. He transitioned from a tough guy into a gentle, to one who consoled those who have misspelled a word and must be escorted off the stage. Young also doubled as one of SchwartzandGrubenniere’s gay dads. Two other actors had additional roles. Green also played one of the gay dads, and Zeng played Jesus.
There was also some wonderful choreography. Acevedo is very limber having displayed a split and a tilt (standing split), as well as fouettes and ballet jumps. Farell and Corridoni did a fine job swing dancing. The group dances were also entertaining.
The set design appropriately consisted of a small gym with championship banners, a desk and chairs for Perretti and Panch, a microphone, and bleachers for the spellers. I noticed a couple of the costumes had changed. Olive originally casted as wearing two braided pigtails, a navy blazer, shirt, tie, and brightly colored pants had a softer hairstyle and a more contemporary look of capri yoga pants, floral skirt, t-shirt and sweater in pastel colors. William Barfée’s character also received a new look from an office employee to a geeky prep in summer attire. I would like to think these changes have been made to appeal to the Princeton community.
Melissa Firlit brilliantly revealed the trials and tribulations of annual spelling bees in this production and, and allowed audiences to see how bittersweet the event can be from a child’s perspective. These characters discovered winning isn’t everything, and defeat doesn’t make you are a loser. This is a valuable lesson for all. The humor translated well, the set design was perfect, the costumes felt tweaked for Princeton, and the live music matched with the small theater felt like it was commissioned for a private audience. This is definitely a performance worth seeing.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is playing from June 18 – 28, with the exception of the 23rd and 24th, at the Matthews Acting Studio in Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts on Nassau Street next to Thomas Sweet Ice Cream. Free parking is behind the building accessed from Williams Street off Washington Road. This PG-13 rated one-act musical has a running time of approximately 105 minutes, and there is no intermission. Click here for details and tickets.