'Spelling Bee'

A scene from Village Theatre's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", now playing through Oct. 20 in Issaquah, and Oct. 25 through Nov. 17 at Everett Performing Arts Center.

Village Theatre kicks off its 40th Anniversary Season with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” definitely one of the most wacky shows I have ever seen.

At first, I thought, “A musical about a spelling bee in a small town?”

Of course, a show about six kids spelling for several hours would not be very interesting, and a guarantee to put me to sleep. The show is about everything around the spelling bee itself. The six main characters are outcasts who have been programmed for success. And they want so desperately to succeed, to belong somewhere, that our hearts often break with and for them. Will they survive the stress and the pressure cooker atmosphere of a spelling marathon?

When I remembered that the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee made national news, the idea of a “Spelling Bee” musical began to make sense. The atmosphere is rife with tension, and the best shows are always driven by tension and conflict. Director Brandon Ivie reiterates that the show is really about “what winning means to (the main characters): finding self-acceptance, fixing a broken home, gaining their parent’s approval, or discovering independence and free will.”

The songs by William Finn function as interior monologues of what the characters are thinking and feeling as they step up to the microphone to spell. There are two big show-stopping musical numbers, “Pandemonium” and “Magic Feet.” Most of the other songs just seemed like a grab bag of silliness to me. There is one important and heartbreaking ballad in the show, which I will discuss momentarily.

Quite a few people worked on the quirky concept of this show. The original concept was by Rebecca Feldman. Rachel Sheinken wrote the book, with additional materials by Jay Reiss. The six school-age characters (Chip, Marcy, Leaf, Olive, Longainne and William) are played convincingly by adult actors Justin Huertas, Arika Matoba, Rafael Molina, Taylor Niemeyer, Sarah Russell and MJ Sieber. Adult actors playing kids on the brink of puberty adds additional layers to the show’s already weird and wacky vibes.

Longainne (Sarah Russell), for instance, has two fathers, and is the President of the Gay-Straight Alliance Club at her school. She also speaks with a lisp. Leaf (Rafael Molina) appears to be autistic, and William Barfee (MJ Sieber) sounds like Elmer Fudd. William repeatedly reminds everyone that his last name is pronounced “BAR-FAYE.”

Nobody listens to him and this adds to his constant humiliation. Last year’s champ Chip (Justin Huertas) returns ready to reclaim the spelling bee throne, but a rather unfortunate occurrence ruins his chances. Marcy (Arika Matoba) is a super achiever who has been raised to win at all costs. And Olive’s (Taylor Niemeyer) best friend is her dictionary. In “Spelling Bees” one moment of raw emotional connection, Taylor Niemeyer sings a heartbreaking ballad. The song is Olive’s cry for help to her absent parents. Her mother is off in India having a nervous breakdown and her father is always too busy at work.

Director Brandon Ivie excitedly proclaims that “Spelling Bee” is a show “about weirdos!” And the kids are not the only “weirdos” in the room. I found myself seriously wondering what was going on with the alleged “adult” characters.

Rona (Jessica Skerritt) is a former Spelling Bee champion who returns every year to act as hostess. With her beehive hairdo and perky cheerleader demeanor, Rona has spelling bees on her brain. But there are hints of darkness beneath her perkiness. As each contestant steps up to the microphone to spell, she offers personal information, and often makes condescending remarks, about them.

Vice Principal Paunch (Brian Lange) is struggling with serious issues. During a “snack break," he has a break down. He is clearly in love with Rona. In the show’s epilogue, we learn that Rona had a restraining order issued against Paunch and left the United States for a while to get away from him.

Mitch Mahoney (Nicholas Rapaul Bernard) must endure the Spelling Bee as part of his “community service” orders. Mitch is on hand to act as a “Comfort Counselor.” What’s at stake in the Spelling Bee is a trip to Washington, D.C., a Saving’s Bond, and a very tacky trophy. Those eliminated receive a juice box. Mitch’s job is to give hugs and the consolation juice box.

“Spelling Bee” also relies heavily on audience participation. Each performance, two members of the audience are pre-selected to come on stage and play along. Therefore, the dynamics and running time of each performance will vary a bit depending on how long the audience members are on stage. Like the characters, they leave if and when they misspell a word. While the audience participation does not distract from the show, I found it to be a rather obvious gimmick to milk more laughs.

The Village Theatre production succeeds because of the perfect comedy timing and enthusiasm of the cast. The Village Theatre production is better than the show itself.

In comedy, there is a fine line between laughing with the characters and laughing at them. I feel that “Spelling Bee” crosses that line and goes over the top too often. The characters eventually become caricatures, and that is unfortunate.

At a pivotal moment, the character of Marcy asks God if it is “OK” if she loses the spelling bee. God actually appears and tells her that if she wins or loses, either way, everything is “OK.” But God is weary and honest. He also tells Marcy that “a spelling bee is not something I care very much about.” And that is exactly how I felt about it. The show is entertaining to a degree, the cast is excellent and enthusiastic, and Brandon Ivie’s direction is heartfelt. But a “fun show” is not necessarily a memorable one.

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