KAYSVILLE — The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a delightful little show with music and lyrics by William Finn, based on a book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman with additional material by Jay Reiss. It opened on Broadway in 2005 and has had a successful life nationally and regionally ever since.
The Hopebox production, directed by Colton Ward, was as fun and amusing as I had hoped a production of Spelling Bee would be. One thing I truly enjoyed was the set design. The Hopebox Theatre is a very small space, and that leaves very little in the way of set interpretation. However, the space was utilized extremely well by designer Macyn Brinkerhoff. One really special part of the design was naming the gym J. Davis. Each show Hopebox dedicates to someone who is struggling with cancer, and this show was dedicated to Joanne Davis, so to take an element of the set and make that uniquely hers was quite special.
The story of Spelling Bee is a simple one of misfit spellers who all gather to try and become the one that triumphs at the county spelling bee. Whenever I have seen this show, different players tend to stand out as the shining stars, and this production was no exception. The first person to have me enamored was Madeline Harding as Olive Ostrovsky. In past productions, the role of Olive has usually been played with a more serious flare, so I was really glad to see how Harding leaned into the humor of the character, because humor is what makes this production shine. Harding was spectacular with her physical comedy, in ways that were surprising and impressive. She also had a very strong voice, and her vocals on songs such as “My Friend the Dictionary” and “The I Love You Song” were skilled and on point. I really loved her chemistry with fellow player Logan Stacey as William Barfée. Barfée is almost always a highlight in the show, but Stacy took this role to even more impressive levels with his magic voice that matched his Magic Foot. His ability to have confidence and yet vulnerability within his character was also something that I enjoyed watching play out through the production.
Sophia Mancilla excelled as Marcy Park, the overachiever who shows off her abilities in the song “I Speak Six Languages,” but also is one inch from caving under pressure throughout the entire production. Mancilla has mastered the art of facial expressions, and I really liked seeing how she could command humor by the twitch of her eye or stiff movement of her arms.
Some of the best parts of Spelling Bee come from the announcers, Rona Lisa Peretti played by Gentri Glaittli and Douglas Panche played by Nathan Spackman. These two have the task of interacting with the spellers and also with some audience participants, and especially in the case of Panche, I truly wonder how he says the lines that he does with a straight face. It is highly appropriate that a show about spelling would have many plays on words, but the ability to not crack under the pressure of humor is indeed delightful to behold.
Yamileth Campos was a fun addition as Michelle Mahoney, a role often played as a male (Michael), but worked so well as a female in this rendition. Her number “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” right before the intermission may have been some of the best vocals of the night, and her tough persona throughout the show was highly entertaining.
Hunter Wilcox played a delightful Leaf Coneybear, and he had my favorite costume of the evening, with the costume design by Makayla Riddle. Wilcox was able to blend pure innocence with humor and his number “Not that Smart” was endearing enough to make me feel quite attached to him.
The entire cast worked quite well together to portray how a bunch of misfit kids can come together to feel like there is hope and reason for feeling better about themselves if they can prove that they are good at something like spelling. People who are familiar with the show may know that there are two versions, and Hopebox has put on the slightly edited version, where Chip Tolentino, played by the incredibly talented Austin Boonchan, sings a tamer “My Unfortunate Distraction” at the beginning of the second act to keep the show a bit more family friendly. The character of Logainne Schwartzy, played by Kelsey Turner, is a energetic young child feeling pressured to win at all costs because of her two dads who expect nothing but the best from her. Every single one of the cast members embodied their characters well, and there was laughter from start until finish.
Because the show is not as well known as many others produced at the Hopebox, this is the first opening night I have attended that was not a full house. I find this a bit sad, as I feel that this is a fine production and a great season choice as it introduces the Davis County audience to a show not done as frequently. I highly encourage readers to consider checking out the production.