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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Or: Lekker: L-E-K-K-E-R. From the Dutch. A descriptor meaning various “nice” things. Ex: “The show is Lekker”.

As a reviewer I have hard time putting a handle on Spelling Bee. It’s a straightforward plough of a story that sometimes cuts through pockets of surrealism. It’s toothachingly sweet and bitterly cynical. It’s a childish romp and one I would not want any child under my charge anywhere near.

Strictly speaking the musical is exactly what it says on the tin: the 25th annual Spelling Bee of the collected elementary and middle schools of Putnam County, New York. We have a collection of children of various backgrounds, interests and struggles who have no more urgent a goal than to out spell their competitors and qualify for Nationals. As Mitch (Jonny Stein) the “comfort counselor” to the event reminds us this is not a big deal at all in the grand scheme of things. However we are given long musical asides into the hopes, dreams, and fears of our contestants, who have staked (or have had been made to stake) quite a lot on this event.

As an audience member I can willing say I had a good time. When things turned sweet, we all aww-ed. When things got lecherous we all tisked. And when things got humorous, which was more often then not, we all laughed uproariously. Some of us even found ourselves spelling the word of the minute with the contestant under our breath (often incorrectly). But the fractional nature of the story, and the stream of consciousness style of many of the songs (where nothing is explained or decided, just jawed off tunefully) pushed us back to our seats where we would have loved to lean forward.

Spelling Bee is not a musical that lends itself to acting, despite its emphasis on Self Discovery. The overall direction of the book is for the cast to play the problem not the person:

Chip Tolentino (Kyle Sherman) the overconfident and over-confidant past champion, Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Brooke Weisman) a plucky and charming activist with a deadly license to lisp, Leaf Coneybear (Charlie Oh) peculiar, endearing, and picked on by his many flora named syblings, Marcy Park (Zoe Nadal) a wunderkind who hates herself for being a wunderkind, William Barfee (Jared Corak) unloved and unloving, and Olive Ostrovsky (Betsey Stewart) a shy creature, facing an empty house, an uncertain future and only a dictionary for a friend.

Overlooking the proceedings, our guides to the event, are Rona Peretti (Desiree Staples) the magnanimous former champion and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Ryan Bernsten), cantankerous, cutting, and very witty.

While Weisman, Corak, Stapels and Bernsten do an especially good job of adding color to the little internal conflicts and the human drama of the show, the whole ensemble works as a wonderful machine when the musical numbers roll around. Whether they sing to departed parents, failed contestants, or themselves all show stamina in their lungs, versatility in their voices, and a great deal of heart. They are also showcased by a very inventive and talented design team who manage to both capture the utilitarian essence of very middle school auditorium you’ve ever had the misfortune to sit in, and make it into a space of wonder.

After examination I have to say that Spelling Bee is not a first rate musical but it is a good one. Something to enjoy throughly but not necessarily treasure. It’s tunes won’t stay with you, its leaps of logic may befuddle you, and its shackled characters may leave you thirsty for that extra dram of understanding. But in the moment it is certain to charm your ears with harmonious voices, delight your sentimental sensibilities, and send you into paroxysms of laughter.

Recommended (ages 17 and upwards)

Warning: Show contains suggestive language and costuming.

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