Between my lack of much prior knowledge about the Miami Acting Company and the fact that I found myself at a school auditorium rather than any more conventional theatre venue when I showed up to attend their current production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from their rendition of the 2005 musical.
But, as it turns out, being that the show is set at a school spelling bee, the unconventional musical and unconventional setting were in a near-perfect accordance. And, surprisingly enough, their rendition of the play was also a thoroughly entertaining one, to the extent that it was hard to find many flaws with. On the surface of it, the concept of Spelling Bee is pretty simple: six exceedingly quirky kids are battling it out for the title of county champion. Thanks to the play’s wild and witty tone, this turns out to be a lot more engaging than it sounds: over the course of the play, sabotage is attempted, alliances are formed, and many an epiphany is had as the bee turns out to be a catalyst for the kids to come to important realizations about themselves as well as a chance to show off their spelling chops.
Given the script’s conceit of having adult actors play characters who range from elementary to middle school age and the consummately wacky nature of those characters, the play seemed to demand a borderline caricaturist energy from the majority of its talented ensemble cast, most of whom thoroughly entertained the audience by playing their roles to the hilt.
Jeffery Pierce is cocky returning champion Chip Tolentino, who is struck by puberty at what seems the least opportune time. As the overachieving Marcy Park, and as the actress who seemed closest in age to her young character, Victoria Lister delivers an impressive rendition of standout solo number “I Speak Six Languages.” Stephanie Fritz plays precariously political Logainne Schwartz and Grubenierre complete with a notable lisp as well as a whole lot of spunk, and Bill Altfield incorporates an array of entertaining mannerisms into his portrayal of the spacey Leaf Coneybear.
But it is Lito Beccerra who may have emerged the stand-out student as the chronically congested and often off-putting William Barfée, who spells using a “magic foot” technique that is fodder for some hilariously awkward dance moves. Finally, Francine Berns, who delivers one of the play’s best vocal performances, plays Olive Ostrovsky, a sweet, modest bookworm who’s the only newcomer amidst the group of otherwise seasoned spellers. There are also a few adult characters in the mix. The smooth-voiced Andres Otero is Mitch Mahoney, whose duties as “comfort counselor” for the eliminated spellers are part of his court-mandated community service. And the bee is presided over by bubbly moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Devin Frampton, also a strong singer) and the somewhat unhinged Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Daniel Sanchez), who are also sources of much of the play’s humor.
They’re the characters who are mostly responsible for handling the show’s audience participation element, which takes the form of four “spellers” recruited from the crowd pre-show, a gambit that led to a few amusing ad-libs. An eclectic lineup of spelling words and the incisively funny ways that each is defined and used in a sentence keep the inherently procedural action of the bee from ever getting boring, as do frequent breaks into song and vibrant and creative choreography for rousing group numbers like “Pandemonium.”
While the set and technical elements of the play were mostly pretty low-key, which is all that was really demanded, one segment did feature a brief strobe effect which enhanced one memorable sequence. Costumes also visually distinguished each character as well as occasionally helped indicate when actors were briefly doubling into roles other than their primary one, such as during the appearances of Logan’s two flamboyant adoptive fathers, Olive’s neglectful parents, and, believe it or not, Jesus.
Though the show’s plentiful comedic elements mostly overshadow the more sporadic serious ones, we do also get a glimpse into each of the kids’ psyches through their respective musical numbers, which gives the play a bit of heart to go with its broader and raunchier jokes. In the end, these underdog characters are not only amusing company but easy to identify with and to root for, probably taking quite a few audience members back into the aching awkwardness of their own adolescence.
While there can only be one champion speller, an epilogue where happy endings are hinted at for most of the characters ends the show on a high note even for the “losers,” completing an overall uplifting picture. Whether or not you’ve got a passion for spelling, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a fun enough show that it would be a mistake to miss out on. You can catch it only until June 26th!