REVIEW: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
By Bruce Roberts
My cheeks hurt from laughing so much. My hands hurt from clapping so much. It was one terrific show.
I just saw The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, at the Chanticleers Little Theater in Castro Valley, California, and loved it. The show, of course, centers around a spelling bee, a fact that by itself is enough to make theatergoers cringe with childhood memories of pressure, of defeat, of humiliation. Other languages—German, for instance—have one system of spelling. If you can pronounce the word, no matter how long, you can spell it. German has not imported word after word from every spelling system in the world as has English. Thus, spelling auf Deutsch is not a challenge. (Ironically, the winning word in this play is taken from German.) English spelling, however, is a challenge, a big one; thus the existence of spelling bees—and this play.
The humor in this play comes at the audience from every angle. The spellers themselves are funny, using various bizarre strategies to come to the correct spelling. One character (William, played by Matthew Horry) even spells each letter out on the floor with his “magic foot” before getting it correct. Spellers are allowed to ask for the word in a sentence, and the vice principal (Ray D’Ambrosio) responds with ludicrous sentences that invariably cause hysterics.
More comedy is derived from people plucked from the audience to play spellers. The show’s real spellers get impossibly hard words—which they struggle over before getting them correct–while the audience members are given words like “cow.” “May I have that in a sentence?” “Spell COW!” Another comic showstopper is the song sung by the previous year’s champion (Chip, played by David Kelii Kahawaii) a uniformed boy scout expecting to win again, but who sings an entire lament to the untimely erection that caused him to be disqualified. He even works in a rhyme for “penis.”
The play, however, is not about spelling. That is merely the springboard to introduce us to this world of wacky characters and their equally wacky, or poignant, side stories. Every character is unique; every character is dysfunctional, and their dysfunctions are measured against the spelling bee as a symbol of success in their lives. Logainne (Kara Penrose) has two dads, and desperately wants to please them by winning. Mercy (Rachel L. Jacobs) is incredibly smart and talented, but wants freedom to fail. Leaf (Nicolina Akraboff), though dressed as a caped superhero, only reached the finals by default, and is sure she will lose, a fact reinforced by her siblings. William, the foot speller, fluctuates between being nerdy and bizarre, and being testy about most everything, yelling at others over the mispronunciation of his name (Not Barfy, it’s Barfee’!”) All do dysfunction wonderfully.
This is a musical, and Josh Milbourne—vocal director—and Willis Hickox—accompanist—have created a wonderful music experience. Songs—funny, angry, sad–are spread throughout, with every character singing well. The best voice might belong to Austin Scott III, playing Mitch Mahoney the comfort thug, as well as one of Logainne’s gay fathers. When he sings, besides being taller, his voice rises above too. Another fine voice belongs to Allison Mathiesen, playing Olive Ostrovsky, whose dysfunction reaches new lows with a father who can’t get off work, and a mother who’s “finding herself” in India. Olive has a lovely voice as she plaintively sings of loneliness, with parents always too busy to attend spelling bees—or anything else in her life.
Once again, award-winning director Sue Ellen Nelsen has assembled a superior cast and crew and harmonized them into excellent entertainment. If you’re ever in Castro Valley,California, for a truly wonderful theater experience, can you spell “Chanticleers?”
Bruce Roberts, who may be reached at email@example.com, is an accomplished sculptor and schoolteacher from Hayward, California.