Having the ability to look back on adolescence — because somehow we survived it — can be a tremendous joy, though one we may avoid to save us from reliving utterly cringe-worthy moments we’d prefer to forget.
However, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” — the delightful Tony Award-winning musical currently in production at The Barn Theatre — is an unavoidable joy, pure and simple, because it dives into the cringe-worthy moments of adolescence through an adorable motley crew of characters so committed to the high stakes of their county spelling bee the audience gets sucked into the drama as if it were their own.
And for some of them it is. In addition to the six characters in the show participating in the spelling bee, four members of the audience are called onto the stage and legitimately compete — to unexpected and riotous effect.
It’s this special alchemy, of drawing in the audience both literally and figuratively, that makes the experience of seeing this show practically unlike any other. Though I attend shows for the purpose of figuring out how and why they’re working, I completely lost myself in this one, practically forgetting I was watching a staged production of a spelling bee and not a spelling bee itself — as well as adult actors playing children and not (wildly talented) children themselves.
The children are quirky, lovable, impassioned, awkward — and made so real here, we can’t help but recognize at least a little of ourselves in them.
There’s Schwartzy Schwartzandgrubinere (Molly Hill), with her hysterical lisp and fierce competitive spirit egged on by her well-meaning yet overbearing gay dads. And Leaf Coneybear (Cody Edwards), who’s a little bit simple and teased for it by his family. He nearly upstages himself with his homemade clothes and finger puppet, but when he’s called to the mic, he becomes possessed by a force that allows him to spell anything. There’s hilariously chronically ill William Barfée (Christian Edwards), constantly mispronounced as “barfie” much to his chagrin, whose magic foot can spell out in dance just about anything.
Overachiever Marcy Park (Brittany Mendoza-Peña) in her Catholic school girl uniform rethinks the value of perfectionism. And brilliant boy scout Chip Tolentino (Jonnie Carpathios), whose earnest good performance is compromised by his raging hormones. Then Olive Ostrovsky (Melissa Cotton Hunter) with her dreamy passion for language born of neglect from her narcissistic parents that led her to find companionship in books.
Under fantastic direction from Hans Friedrichs, they’re heartbreakers and comedians, every one, fully embodying the strange way children are in their bodies while also being in full command of bright and poignant songs with excellent music direction from Brent Decker and fun choreography by Jamey Grisham that ranges from spastic armography to a full-on balletic pas de deux.
The spelling bee takes place in a school gym, complete in bright colors, faux cinder block walls, bleachers, enthusiastic posters, and institutional double doors through which there are double-decker lockers, created with astonishing verisimilitude by set designer Stephen Lee Burright.
Intermittent flash backs interrupt the spelling bee to show the kids’ various predicaments that brought them to the current moment, and lighting design by Lauren Gallup clearly indicates shifts in time and mood seamlessly. Samantha Rickard, in addition to playing the former spelling bee champ and current organizer, doubles as the moms in the flashbacks; Patrick Hunter, who’s the cranky announcer and hysterical improviser of using weird words in sentences, and Charlie King, who plays intimidating chief comforter (with juice boxes and hugs) to spelling bee losers as part of his court-mandated community service, both shift gears beautifully to play various dads in the flashbacks.
It’s an astounding ensemble so good you forget they’re acting, and whether it seems possible or not, you become utterly wrapt by a spelling bee that reminds us that yes, we survived adolescence, and yet a part of us will always remain a hopeful, vulnerable, weird little kid. Thankfully so.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee