From the haughty nerd to the sugar-fueled spaz, you’ve met each of these kids in elementary school. CU’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” is like a reunion of these lovable characters from childhood—in the most silly and sincere way.
Despite competition with Friday’s football game, the musical opened at the University Theatre Building to a sizeable crowd of theater lovers. While waiting for the show to begin, the audience had a chance to survey the simple, but cheerful set. The brightly lit stage featured yellow risers on the left, a judging table on the right, a white projection screen and a big, cartoonish banner.
Though the setup was stark, it was only a backdrop for big personalities to fill.
The Tony Award winning show first premiered on Broadway in 2005. Its heroes are elementary-aged kids who are competing in a spelling bee for a grand prize trip to Washington D.C. Reminiscent of “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown” in style, the musical is character study of a small cast of kids with dreams. Putnam County takes this concept to a new level with pop culture references, fast-paced dialogue and a general attitude.
As if the audience was patiently waiting for a real spelling bee to begin, Rona (played by Megan Montalbano), a nostalgic past contestant and a judge for the current contest, quietly walked on stage without much warning to test the microphone. Of course, it wouldn’t be a musical if she didn’t sing a little song too. Her entrance subtly made it clear that the audience was a vital part of the play’s staging.
This became apparent when three audience members walked onstage with the cast. They signed up to be extra spellers in the performance, which made them unofficial cast members of the night. Opening night brought two college-aged girls and a tall older man with facial hair on the stage. The man stuck out among the cast of obnoxiously dressed “children,” but he proved to be a great sport and a source of unintentional comedy.
One especially funny moment happened when an audience member tried to spell “cow” without laughing as Vice Principal Douglas Panch (played by Alex Demos) stared with hilarious apathy.
The exchange went something like, “Spell cow.” “Can I have a definition?” “It’s a Cow.” “Could you use it in a sentence?” “Please spell cow.”
The real comedic life force of the play, however, came from the spectacular student performances that embodied the show’s motley crew of characters.
Though each character had its own hilarious moments, none committed to comedy in the same way James Miller did. “Embodied” is not a strong enough word for Miller’s portrayal of Leaf Conneybear, a lovable child with an unlimited energy supply and imagination. His bashful smile and goofy voice for his sock puppet gave him a child-like quality that was unquestionably believable.
During the most memorable song in the show, “I’m Not That Smart,” he showed off an ability for physical comedy. He basically turned himself into a human projectile by clumsily flinging himself around the stage. Miller also showed comedic versatility by doubling as another character’s gay father and stole several moments with his few lines.
A subtler source of comedy was the character Vice Principal Douglas Panch. The balding Panch was a source of sarcasm in a world of spelling-bee fever. Demos delivered hilarious definitions for words in a perfect deadpan voice, such as defining capybara as “A tail-less four-and-a-half-foot largely aquatic South American rodent.” When asked to use capybara in a sentence, he went on to give the line, “Don’t look now, Pedro, but I think that tail-less four-and-a-half-foot rodent swimming next to you may be a capybara.” His apathy, frustration and an underlying sweetness had the audience laughing and excited for each of his lines.
Katherine McManus delivered a stirring performance as Olive, the show’s unofficial female lead. Her endearing performance was evident during childish flirtation with William Barfee (played by Cole Bradley), the competition’s know-it-all, and during her charming serenade to her dictionary, “My Friend, the Dictionary.”
McManus’ true talent lies in her incredible voice and acting ability. The silence in the audience was palpable during “The I Love You Song.” Throughout the show, Olive hints that her family is somewhat broken, with a mother in India and a father who can’t quite make it to the competition. Her effortless voice danced through her melody, but she maintained a melancholy power through her eyes and through her delivery of the piercing lyric “Mama, mama, mama!”
The CU production also used multimedia as a way to heighten the humor. Images such as pictures of contestants with quirky background information were projected on a screen onstage. The screen was even used during some songs, like flashing pictures of pandas during the song “Pandemonium.”
The weakest point of the production came during its ending. It takes a cheesy approach to summing up the plot. For many, this will not be a problem. Be prepared though to lose a little faith in the comedic integrity of the show.
For those who fear musical theater or get antsy halfway through the first act of “Les Miserables,” this show is only one act long and has an infectious bounce that is difficult to dislike. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is an easy recommendation for a light-hearted evening on campus.
Catch the show this week from Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $14 for students and can be purchased at the box office in the University Theatre Building or buy them online here.
Contact CU Independent Entertainment Editor Stephanie Riesco at Stephanie.firstname.lastname@example.org.