Bayside High School, Grade 12
When you think of a spelling bee, what comes to mind? I think: a bunch of smart kids who must stay on a stage until they find out who the best speller is. Well, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee takes this seemingly ordinary situation far beyond the average imagination.
I had heard that the show was funny and that it was a musical, but I couldn't picture a spelling bee with singing. I had to see it for myself.
Walking into the theatre was like walking into a school gymnasium: Basketball hoops, sports banners, and bleachers filled the room. Before the show began, four members of the audience were selected to be additional "spellers" in the show. Then, when the lights went down and the scripted characters began breaking out into song and dance, the four audience members sitting onstage gazed about them looking anxious and confused. This added a unique interactive feel and an extra humorous touch.
Also, throughout the show, members of the cast came out into the audience, using the seating area as part of the stage. That further brought the show to life and made it up close and personal to the audience.
The show is about six kids (played by adults) at a spelling bee and their quirks, antics, and stories. Chip Tolentino is a Boy Scout going through the struggles of puberty. Leaf Coneybear is a lad who loves cats and has been told he's not very smart. Olive Ostrovsky is a girl who loved words but has absent parents: her mother is away in India, and her father is uninvolved in her life. William Barfee is a pompous boy with a "magic foot" that assists him (he believes) in spelling. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre is a quirky little girl with a lisp and two dads pushing her to be a winner. Marcy Park is an Asian-American girl bogged down by a busy schedule and the expectation to be perfect.
The first half of the show is chock full of hilarity. There's no intermission, which keeps the play's momentum going and allowed it to catch me by surprise in the middle, when Spelling Bee transitions from funny to heartfelt. The story then goes beyond the surface personas of the characters and delves into the personal stories of their families and their feelings.
Olive Ostrovsky in particular touched me. This is a girl whose best friend is her dictionary, and who points out that if you switch the two first vowels in Olive, it spells "I Love." Her final word, "chimerical," is defined as "unreal" or "imaginary," and she immediately thinks of her parents: Her dad is too busy to be at the bee, and her mom is off somewhere in India.
Ultimately Spelling Bee is a play filled with hilarious moments, but with a larger meaning behind the laughs. It takes an everyday situation, a spelling bee, and looks beyond the smart faces the kids put on. It's also a tale of change, showing us how things that may seem pivotal in our lives, like a spelling bee, may not affect our futures the way we think they will. Life will go on, and you don't always have to finish in first place to be a winner.
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