SAINT GEORGE — Derived from the original play, C-R-E-P-U-S-C-L-E, by The Farm, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was originally produced in 2005. With the book written by Rachel Sheinkin, and music and lyrics by William Finn, Spelling Bee is a lively and humorous musical following six adolescent competitors in their region’s local spelling bee. Under the guidance of director Grace Wells, choreographer McKenzie Morgan, and musical director Celeste Teal Dixon, The Stage Door has given St. George a P-H-E-N-O-M-E-N-A-L production.
Walking into the Electric Theater in St. George, one’s eyes are immediately drawn to the scenic set up of Spelling Bee. The scenic design by Joshua Scott consisted of wooden bleachers, a single microphone on a stand, an American flag, and a table for the judges, all on the proscenium stage opens up to the house proper of the Electric Theater. The set truly evoked a spelling bee setting to the audience.
Making the spelling bee more real to those watching, audience members are invited to join the show as spellers! Not only did these spellers show adequate linguistic skills, but they were also good sports to participate in the choreography and interact with the cast members. It was a surprising and humorous bit of improvisation when the last contestant from the audience kept spelling words correctly until he eventually misspelled one.
Spelling Bee (“Stop hating on the Bee, Shawn!”) follows six juveniles as they compete to win the Putnam County Spelling Bee, as well as the three adults that officiate over the event. As described by Wells, “Each character will give you a glimpse into their life and how their family relationships shaped them into who they are today.” It is these glimpses that make each character not only relatable to the audience, but also endearing. The themes of humanity and realism portrayed by all the characters, as well as the incredible talent that each is allotted, make Spelling Bee comedic and reflective.
In this impressive ensemble show where every character is vital, and many actors are playing multiple characters, it is difficult to pinpoint just a few outstanding moments. Chip Tolentino (played by Christhain Roa) was a constant source of laughter with his delivery of lines and the character whose story and run in Spelling Bee is brief due to an awkward distraction. Roa’s vocals really shine in the numbers “Pandemonium” and “Chip’s Lament.” Gwendolyn Scott brings Logainne ‘Schwarzy’ Schwartzandgrubenniere (whose surname deserves a place on the spellmaster’s list) to life. Being pressured by her two dads, Carl Dad and Dan Dad (respectively played by Coy Andrew Shinn Jr. and James David), to succeed in everything, Logainne realizes that sometimes she overcomplicates things and learns that simplicity has its perks. While Gwendolyn Scott contributes many laughs and vocal strong points, impressive by itself with the speech impediment that the character has, she really shines in her song “Woe is Me.”
Leaf Coneybear, portrayed by Shinn, is an audience favorite the moment he walks onto the stage. Adorable in every way from his clothing to his childlike mannerisms, Leaf reflects how his family mistreats him and has convinced him that “I’m Not That Smart.” However, as he miraculously advances with every correct word, a surprise to himself and the audience as they witness Leaf’s special effects in lighting and reverb (masterfully created by lighting designer Joshua Scott and sound designer Mark Speener) when he spells a word, Leaf learns that perhaps he is smart after all, a delightful realization in Shinn’s performance. Marcy Park (played by Ashley Lynn David) is clearly the biggest overachiever of the group, which is shown in her strict school uniform and constant stance of lower fifth position. It is hard to believe Marcy when she insists that she’s “not all business,” especially when she proudly sings a song called “I Speak Six Languages.” And anyone who can belt while slowly sliding into a full split clearly means business. Ashley Lynn David gives some satisfying growth to Marcy when the character makes an ultimate decision to choose herself over what is expected, and Ashley Lynn David’s performance made me love this little girl.
Olive Ostrovsky (played by Anna Beck) is a sweet girl who’s found refuge from her broken family in the spelling bee, which is only hinted at throughout the play. The character has multiple songs in which she showcases Beck’s voice, but the most poignant one was the simultaneously heartwarming and breaking, “The I Love You Song.” Tony Piersanti plays perhaps the biggest outcast in the play, William Barfée (rhymes with “parfait”). William is determined to win the spelling bee with his unique technique and is not concerned with making friends — that is, until the sweet Olive does. As a relationship (whether romantic or platonic, it is open for debate) forms between Olive and William through their love and fascination with words, the only way to describe the two chemistry between Piersanti and Beck is certifiably adorkable.
Never to be forgotten is the panel of adults supervising the spelling bee. The three are led by hostess and third Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee champion Rona Lisa Perretti (played by Jamie Probert Cook), who is as peppy as she is willing to help the contestants reach their potential. Cook is astonishing in her vocals and delivery of character, as she plays Rona and Olive’s absentee mother. At Cook’s side is Clifton Oram as Vice Principal Douglas Panch. Oram’s portrayal as the spellmaster is perhaps one of the most comedic I have seen. (I was never sure if the sample sentences he gave the contestants were part of the script or improvised.) And last, but certainly not least, is seemingly tough and gruff comforter counselor Mitch Mahoney, played by James David. His vocals shine in various points of the show, as James David not only played Mitch Mahoney, but as he also played two different dads: Logainne’s and Olive’s. His best moment, though, was “Prayer of The Comfort Counselor,” a particularly incredible solo. And who can say no to a juice box from Mitch as a consolation prize when they are eliminated from the bee?
The only misstep in this otherwise flawless show occurred after being Marcy is given an easy word to spell. Marcy exclaims, “Dear Jesus, can’t you come up with a harder word than that?” A flash of light appeared . . . and then a pause arrived that seemed far too long. In a literal twist, Jesus (played by Roa) appears and says “Yes, I can.” I do not know if the long pause was intentional or if some unseen hiccup happened backstage, but it certainly felt uncomfortable just waiting for something that was clearly going to happen.
While I highly recommend seeing this production, audiences should keep in mind that this musical is rated PG-13 for adult language, innuendo, and anatomical references related to puberty. But rather than detract from the show, I felt that the different uses of vernacular made the characters and show more believable. From the opening word spelling of “syzygy” to the sports movie-like ending, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a delight. Head over to The Electric Theater and get your tickets N-O-W!