Arts musical review

Syzygies, capybaras, and catterjunes

Spelling bees have never been more fun

9087 putnam county spelling bee
The cast of 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' sings about their love of spelling bees.
Julie Henion Photography

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Musical Theater Guild
Book by Rebecca Feldman
Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Kresge Little Theater
Aug. 30–31, Sept. 6–7, Sept. 13 at 8 p.m.
Sept. 1 and Sept. 14 at 2 p.m.

In the program for MTG’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the director’s note mentions, “Spelling Bee knows exactly what it is like to have a weird hobby and celebrates that,” and I couldn’t agree with her more. 

With a charming cast and uniquely-written characters, the story revolves largely around the passion each character holds for a spelling bee. Their individual quirks are endearing and can remind anyone of their own fervent pursuits of beloved hobbies, no matter how strange or obscure. We particularly enjoyed Max Siegel C’s portrayal of Leaf Coneybear. He captured the unabashed optimism of a child, and it’s hard not to cheer on Leaf when he walks up to the mic to spell his assigned word. Siegel’s versatility is also well-demonstrated in his portrayal of Logainne’s (Michelle Hung ’22) tiger dad and the indifferent Jesus. Barfee’s (Olivia Waring G) nasally voice, Logainne’s pronounced lisp, and Marcy’s (Maia Campbell ’22) rapidfire answers are also highlights of the casts’ unflinching commitment to their characters.

Musically, all actors have voices suited to their characters and are skilled in showing off those characteristics. Particularly adept at this is the actor for Rona Peretti (Shannon Peng ’20), the host of the spelling bee who is also a former champion. The smooth and warm texture of her voice sounds like a caring mentor while remaining somewhat playful at times. The prisoner serving parole at the bee, Mitch Mahoney (Elise Brown W’17/C), has a powerful voice that delivers the character’s tough personality accurately through the music. An impressive showstopper is when Marcy sings a part of the number “I Speak Six Languages” while simultaneously playing the keyboard. The ability to do that in the midst of the crazy choreography of cartwheels, juggling, and more, while managing the logistics of moving the keyboard in and out, is particularly impressive.

A notable aspect of this production is the sound production. The echo when Leaf spells adds to the comedy of the show. It helps highlight the contrast between the bubbly, cheerful character and the serious speller in front of the microphone. Sound balance issues are minimal, and all actors’ voices are heard well throughout the entire production, especially in parts where the harmony is crucial.

Although MTG has had many musicals in the past with audience interaction, it was not to the extent of this one, where some of the audience members become part of the cast. It is enjoyable to watch non-actors struggle with some of the difficult words and spell out the easier ones, especially since the audience watching is aware of them not being actors. However, having this interaction is confusing in some dance sequences; even though the choreography is meant to be easy for the audience actors, they often would awkwardly stand still. This is comical to everyone else watching, but it is unclear whether this was intentional and ends up leaving a messy impression.

All these little details ultimately work together to punctuate the humor prevalent throughout the musical. From Leaf’s echo spelling to Barfee’s insistence of how his name should be pronounced, there are several moments that easily incite laughter from audience members. If you have time this weekend, please go see MTG’s summer production and appreciate all the work the cast and crew put in to make The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.