Bringing to mind the mockumentary-style storytelling of Christopher Guest, Panache Theatrical Productions scores a win with the wacky farce “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The production will have audiences roaring with laughter, doubting their own spelling acumen and questioning if they are in fact a good or bad sport.
That’s the query at the core of musicals: How does an individual bask in glory or succumb to defeat? Masterfully produced by Panache and directed with a soft hand by James Bowling, “The Bee” tells the story of a group of bright-eyed and dictionary-minded kids. They’re competing to represent Putnam County at the National Spelling Bee, and the audience gets to see their strange tricks and tics as they recall the nefarious underbelly of the spelling world. It’s a hilarious musical, mixing the internal strife of the documentary “Spellbound” with the external pageantry of Guest’s “Best in Show.” While feeling cluttered at times, it never fails to be enjoyably fun or funny.
First and foremost, Panache has made an ingenious venue selection. Staging their production at the historic Hannah Block USO/Community Arts Center is an exercise in maximizing minimalism. The auditorium already evokes memories of school assemblies, so very little is needed to create the correct ambiance. With just a simple short-stack of bleachers and a table present onstage, the show does little with set dressing. It achieves authenticity, despite the stage feeling overtly stuffed as actors step over each other. Banners hang to promote a bully-free school zone and show pride in the mascot, the Putnam Piranhas.
There is a level of participation in “The Bee,” as four audience members are asked to be stand-ins for missing spellers. It’s a neat aspect to the show. As a poor speller, I was terrified to go up, but a cast this well assembled will leave audiences with little to fear. It’s clear adults are playing the pre-pubescent characters. With actors’ ages so skewed, the gag doesn’t land as strong as it could, since some of the cast are rather baby-faced. That is not to say it is to the production’s detriment. Each member embraces the oddball National Lampoon-like musical to present funny, but more importantly, endearing characters. I was upset when any of the kids would get their words wrong. Their innocent looks of confidence swerved into defeat and were uncomfortable to watch—which speaks highly of both the writing and acting.
Kicking off the musical’s action is Rona Peretti, the moderator and former Putnam County Spelling Bee Champion. Played by Jamie Nelson, she brings a manic love for the Bee and the word “syzygy.” During the opening number, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” contestants file in and explains a little of the backstories of what brought them here.
Cutting the most imposing figure is Chip Tolentino (Mark Deese)—last year’s winner. With his merit-badge-covered Boy Scout uniform, and his chest-pounding toxic masculinity, Deese oozes with “I’m special” privilege. Being something of the group’s bully, he gets his comeuppance which he tries to explain away in the hilarious and self-explanatory number, “My Unfortunate Erection.”
Completely owning his role’s zaniness is Anthony Reynolds as Leaf Coneybear, a home-schooled kid who everyone doubts even deserves to be at the Bee. Reynolds has boundless energy which never seems to falter. Like Martin Short, he possesses the rare ability to present a character so desperately annoying, it’s impossible not to care for him. His number “I’m Not That Smart” is a nice ode to anyone who strives to be authentic. Caitlyn Wolfe brings an eerie, Stepford-esque approach to the role of Marcy Park—a stressed-out kid teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Of the entire cast, it has to be Emily Graham who embodies the concept of adults playing kids the best. The perfectly personified nervous energy she brings to the politically minded, woke Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre is spot on in its attention to detail. She really elevates her performance, from the way she grabs and pulls at her pant legs to her constant, can’t-stay-still happy feet.
While all contestants give an honest reason why they should win the Bee, none are more compelling than Rebekah Carmichael’s Olive Ostrovsky. Carmichael exudes an earnest nature that makes it almost impossible not to root for Ostrovsky to win it all. [Spoiler alert!] So when she doesn’t, a powerful moment of childhood abandonment and bashed hopes goes on full display in “The I Love You Song.” It’s a true example of survival through imagination.
Jordan Hathaway takes on the role of the prodigal son William Barfee, the boy with the magic foot. As his nickname suggests, Hathaway uses his super-powered foot to visualize words before spelling them out loud. His physicality is awesome; stepping over imaginary words as to not disturb the spelling adds such a nice touch. Hathaway really brings genuine weight to the absurd practice. His vocal control is good, too, as Barfee is under an allergy attack throughout the show. Hathaway incorporates sinus assaults into his number “Magic Foot” to show off a well-rounded role.
While it is the kids’ show, hands down “The Bee” is anchored by Michael Lauricella’s vice principal, Douglas Panch. Honestly, the entire production could have been awash and his performance would be worth the price of admission. He brings humor, from slight chuckles to full-on belly laughs, but never steals the light. Folks who decide to go see it this weekend and volunteer to be filler spellers: Make sure to ask for the definition of the words and to have it used it a sentence. Any chance to have Lauricella provide laughter should be taken full advantage of.
The first step towards any goal comes with a 50/50 chance of both victory and defeat. But it’s the journey that teaches us to process and handle whatever lies ahead. With “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Panache continues their journey of feeling the thrill of victory.