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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Spelling Bee’ worthy of buzz

Published: April 23, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

spelling success: In Tympanium Euphorium’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” six students try to put their insecurities aside in order to secure a spot at the national spelling bee.
PHOTO BY Ingrid Schulte/The Hoot

There is no rite of passage quite as wholesome and all-American as the spelling bee. Brandeisians got the opportunity to relive their own spelling bee days with Tympanium Euphorium’s presentation of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a one-act musical comedy that humorously probes the neuroses and dilemmas that plague one group of eager bee contestants. Its Brandeis incarnation, directed by Alex Davidson ’10 and produced by Jackie Feinberg ’10, was unequivocally a success.

The musical’s actions take place on a tense afternoon during the annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in a middle school gymnasium. Six middle school contestants have made it to the final round of the spelling bee: perennially neglected Olive Ostrovsky (Zoey Hart ’13), boy scout—and reigning champ—Chip Tolentino (Adam Levine ’11), overachiever Marcy Park (Sara Wiesenfeld ’12), fiercely competitive nerd William Barfée (Paul Gale ’12), politically aware Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Julie Stein ’11) and Leaf Coneybear (Jeremy Weinberg ’12), a quirky kid who, having been only second runner-up at his school’s spelling bee, was never meant to compete in the first place.

“Putnam County” delivers dose after dose of irreverent humor, gleefully sending up the behind-the-scenes shenanigans one imagines could take place at a bee. Unsurprisingly, most of the characters completely conform to the stereotype of the socially awkward bee contestant, with many of them also being overscheduled by overly enthusiastic stage parents.

The musical as a whole treats the bee with mock importance—it becomes almost an “American Idol”-like event. Always supportive moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Abigail Lisa Clarke ’12) serves as the Paula figure, while decidedly unstable judge Douglas Panch (Herbie Rosen ’12)—always lacing his definitions with inappropriate comments—fills the Simon role. There’s even a Ryan Seacrest of sorts, though this one has a criminal background: convict Mitch Mahoney (Nick Maletta ’13) fulfills his community service by acting as the bee’s Comfort Counselor, giving contestants hugs and juice boxes after they get knocked out of the competition.

“Putnam County” explicitly addresses the seeming irrelevance of spelling bees, as Jesus Christ himself appears to tell one contestant, plagued with doubts about her continued participation, that “this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.”

The production’s comedy benefited from the incorporation of numerous improvisational elements. Before each performance, four additional contestants were selected from the audience to participate alongside the characters. This gave the production an added element of spontaneity. Additionally, the definitions and example sentences given to the contestants varied from show to show, and most of them were incredibly amusing. For instance, the word “guacamole” was used in the sentence: “guacamole—the Mexican pudding.”

As broadly drawn as the show’s characters are, each of them has a kernel of psychological truth and depth to them. Olive dedicates her time to the dictionary simply because her parents are never around, an experience which she shares with the audience in “The I Love You Song.” Leaf simply wants to prove that he is, in fact, a smart kid. Chip finds himself forced out of the competition by his “unfortunate erection.” Perhaps that last bit isn’t as serious as the rest, but the characters clearly possess the insecurity and maladjustedness that plague all adolescents.

The show featured an excellent cast without a single weak link. I found it almost impossible to select a single standout performance, as every actor so completely inhabited his or her role. One favorite, however, was Weinberg as Leaf, a character whom he consistently imbued with a certain kind of wistful eccentricity. Gale took obvious pleasure in making William, the mean-spirited nerd with a perpetually runny nose, as unlikable as possible. Stein, wearing pigtails and donning an exaggerated lisp, seemed like a genuine, precocious child. In fact, that could be said for everyone in the cast.

The success of any musical hinges largely on the presentation of the music itself. Music director Mindy Cimini ’12 did a wonderful job bringing the music to life and ensuring that each vocal performance was matched by stunning musical accompaniment.

The set, which, at first glance, appeared pretty simple, perfectly captured the archetypical middle school gymnasium. It was decorated in a swath of primary and secondary colors and featured a rickety set of bleachers.

As a whole, the production must be commended for bringing such a joyous musical so fully to life. It was easily one of my favorite times at the theater this year.