OGDEN — I was so excited to go to the Ziegfeld Theatre because I love musicals and I’ve never seen this one before. Seeing a new musical comedy is the perfect way to start the new year, ringing it in with song and laughter. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin. It opened on Broadway in 2005 and won both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for Best Book. Ziegfeld’s production, under director Caleb Parry, highlights the strength of the show’s book by focusing on character and taking each to a delightful extreme and makes for a wonderful night of entertainment.
This show made me think of watching Seinfeld as I grew up; it’s a “show about nothing,” but it’s really about a cast of quirky characters and their relatable foibles. Likewise, this musical has a low stakes premise: a generic American county spelling bee competition where six tweens will compete to win the honor of being the champion speller.
This is not a musical about spectacle, no excessive sets or flashy costumes distract from the characters and story. I loved that director Caleb Parry kept the design elements perfectly restrained to highlight his cast. There are bleachers for the contestants and a table for the judges, but the stage for the Bee is set mostly using projections designed by Parry. Most of the action takes place in a generic school gym that could have been from my own hometown. However, the projections change drastically in light, color, and feel when a character lives a dream or memory.
The show begins with Rona Lisa Perretti (Dani Shepherd) having a flashback to her own glory days of winning the Third Annual Spelling Bee and the spellers are introduced one by one. As they entered the projections throw their name on the wall, like the theme song of an 80’s sitcom opening credits. The costume designs by Stephanie Colyar quickly tells the audience volumes about each character in this first introductory number.
Shepherd’s character, Rona Lisa, seems like a woman who returns to judge the bee in order to relive the glory of winning as a child. She has a beautiful voice that shines brightly during all her numbers, and is especially strong and enjoyable in group numbers. Rona also gets to give fun facts about each contestant as they come to the microphone to spell a word and these were well timed and delivered. Rona also has short songs that comment on the action, such as the way girls and boys are taught to express confidence in completely opposite ways, with girls having to make themselves small and humble. Shepherd’s strong and confident soprano made these mature moments have weight and gives thoughtful commentary to the action.
Joining Rona Lisa as a judge is Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Tim Behunin) who gives the children their words, definitions, and use in a sentence. Behunin’s character had a dry humor and quick wit throughout, but I especially loved the parts that were ad-libbed with audience participants as well as an updated rage-filled rant on current issues in society.
Rounding out the adults at the bee is Mitch Mahoney (Dylan Floyd Panter), who is there to comfort the children as part of his community service. When he came on stage in goth black with a spiky dog collar, he is the opposite of warm and comforting. Panter gives a standout performance throughout the night. His vocals are always on point with a powerful tenor, able to belt out his notes while dancing and even in the splits–a feat that had the audience loudly laughing and cheering. Panter also plays Olive’s dad in a shockingly touching trio number.
Olive Ostrovsky (Madeline Harding) was the deepest character for me. As a perky tween all in pink with little pigtails, she is cute and kind to all her fellow contestants. But we quickly learn in her first number, “My Friend The Dictionary,” that she is a lonely child with deep feelings of abandonment behind her radiant smile. This number is actually really funny as she is rolled about on a toilet with an oversized dictionary. Later Olive’s imagination fills the stage as she tries to spell “chimerical,” which mean “wildly fanciful and highly unrealistic.” The projection changes the setting to a psychedelic portrait of faraway India where her mother is supposedly in an ashram. In this fantasy, Olive’s parents join her to sing “The I Love You Song” and was shockingly powerful. All three singers, Harding, Panter, and Shepherd were phenomenal in this number. Their vocals blended perfectly and all three gave evocative performances of love and loss that broke my heart and was a surprise in such a lighthearted show.
While Olive hides her feelings of abandonment, Schwarzy (Abby Harding) has to deal with her two overbearing fathers pushing her to win at all costs. Schwarzy has an adorable lisp whether spelling or singing which Harding kept consistent throughout the show. While pigtails and a lisp make her seem very young, a bowtie and suit jacket help convey her desire to seem older and be everything her dads want her to be. Harding’s performance highlighted the pressure of Schwarzy’s parents’ expectations so well in her song “Woe is Me.”
Also dealing with high expectations is the youngest contestant, Marcy Park (Kara Blanchard) who can speak six languages and only sleeps three hours a night. Marcy’s perfectionism is portrayed so well by Macdonald, who looks blond and polished from head to toe as she sings and dances in her Catholic School uniform. Some audience members might be uncomfortable when Jesus shows up on the stage during Marcy’s prayer wearing a funny wig and big sunglasses, but Parry’s direction of the scene is very good. It shows again that while the characters all feel that there are life altering high stakes at this Bee, in the grand scheme, it is all pretty small.
The young men of the cast are funny and developed in their own way too. Homeschool contestant Leaf Coneybear (Colton Kraus) is played as being light and carefree and accepting of himself in “I’m Not That Smart.” He does go into a demonic trance with a red gel spotlight when he spells his words, however, and that got big laughs every time. William Barfée (Dylan Brady) is played as nerdy as it gets. Brady was fully committed to every nerdy stereotype and schtick, which he kept consistent, and made the character’s extreme brainy confidence endearing as you watch him spell using his unique “Magic Foot” method.
Chip Tolentino (Austin Burt) is handsome and athletic and very interested in girls, which leads to a situation during one round when he doesn’t want to stand up. The gag is for an older audience who can laugh about poor Chip’s unfortunate erection. Burt is very funny, exploring a young boy’s flirting and charisma as well as embarrassment. Unfortunately, I didn’t like how heavily Burt used voice cracks or off-pitch singing. It might have been an actor’s choice to portray a pubescent tween, but it was used so much it took away from some of his songs. I was still laughing at his characterization, even as I cringed at the vocals.
This production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was a truly ensemble show. Each actor was a strong contributor and really developed their character and made me care for them over the course of the show. Parry’s direction kept the show’s pace barreling forward with laughs but still explored the serious thoughts lying under the surface. I would give it a PG-13 rating for mature content as my only caution to patrons, but I would gladly see this show again and encourage Utah patrons to be open to try something new for the new year.