Imagine being on stage, walking up to a microphone and into the limelight as an announcer from some far-off distance says, “Your word is 'syzygy.' ” The auditorium becomes silent and the audience tenses as you begin to spell your word. Suddenly a gasp, and the announcer drearily says, “I’m sorry, that is incorrect.”
Never has a spelling bee appeared so intense and playful as the one portrayed by the Kings Players theatre in their musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Starring the most eclectic and hilarious cast of characters, this play delves deeper than just spelling words. From politics and gender norms to absentee parents, The Putnam County Spelling Bee packs so much into so little. It often catches you off guard with tear-jerking moments and awe-inspiring singing.
The plot follows six children as they try to make first place in the spelling bee. Each has a unique method of spelling; William Barfee (Patrick Avery-Kenny), the quintessential nerd, spells with his feet in a playful dance while Leaf Coneybear (Robert Popoli) blurts out words in random fits of inspiration.
At the heart of the story, however, is Olive Ostrovsky. She plays the daughter of a traveling mother and a busy father who seldom gets to see or experience the love and support of her parents.
Void of filial affection, Olive finds happiness in her worn-out dictionary and the joys of language. As the play progresses, we get to see the unfolding of her character – an awkward young girl who really just wants a connection, someone to understand her.
The set was fairly minimalistic, but it was appropriate. It looked very much like an elementary school gym with bleachers, lockers and sports team banners on the walls. The actual theatre also had pictures plastered on the walls that looked like they were drawn by kids.
The choreography was brilliant and the singing, while sometimes a bit forced, was a pleasure to listen to. The music direction was on another level. In some of the greatest scenes, like Ostrovsky's chimerical dream of having more supporting parents or Coneybear’s optimistic yet charming leave after misspelling, the music accompanied with perfect precision and wonderful execution.
While the play remained relatively stable, there were technical difficulties with the microphones. There were also times where some of the singers' voices sounded strained. This was especially true for Jack Phoenix, who played Mitch Mahoney, the bad boy character who’s at the spelling bee just to fulfill his required community service hours. While his voice was great, he did break after straining too much.
At one point in the play, Logainne Schwartzy (Sammy Koladich), a character known for her political awareness, goes into an unfitting rant about Donald Trump and how he’s ruining America. It seemed a bit too preachy and an overt attempt at garnering crowd support. If done with a bit more subtlety and wit it would have worked, but in the end it was entirely out of place.
The best thing this play had to offer is its strong direction and character development. The actors did such a good job in creating unique personalities. One of the crowd favourites was Vice Principal Panch (Wyatt Merkley), who played a soft-spoken yet easily angered man that brought comedic value in nearly every scene.
Another key feature of the play was the level of audience participation. At the beginning audience members were randomly selected to join the actors on stage in the spelling bee. This was a great way to break the fourth wall and provide a little bit of interaction.
All in all this play was great, even with its faults. The actors were incredible singers and the musical direction was tastefully done. Despite being preachy at times and suffering from some technical difficulties, the play held its own.