Prince William Little Theatre (PWLT) opened its production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee this weekend and suffice it to say, my face still hurts from smiling. Music and lyrics are by William Finn, with the book written by Rachel Sheinkin, conception by Rebecca Feldman, and with additional material by Jay Reiss. The crass and comical musical follows six eclectic and somewhat eccentric competitors who have made it to the county-wide spelling bee, run by three equally quirky adults.
The set, designed by Mia Villani, is well done as a realistic-looking school gymnasium with bleachers for the contestants, a microphone center stage, and a small table where the announcers sit. Director Melanie McGuin and Choreographer Meghan Bentley make great use of the open space.
Volunteers from the crowd are selected to be additional spellers, which adds a level of improv to the performance and makes the experience unique to the audience. Julia Braxton is Rona Lisa Peretti, former Bee champ and passionately exuberant fangirl of the Bee in general. As each speller approaches the mic, Braxton spews fun facts about them as benign as commentary on their methods but the audience participants are berated with brutally farcical comments ranging from bowel movements to their utter loneliness. Braxton delivers every line with genuine interest and enthusiasm, making the biting remarks all the more humorous.
Douglas Panch (Scott Heine) is the official pronouncer and has an unidentified shady past that precludes him from certain positions of authority. Heine is the deadpan to Braxton’s bubbliness and gives absurd sentence examples of the words for clarification, sometimes clever, sometimes gross, but always amusing.
Kareem Taylor plays Mitch Mahoney, the comfort counselor assigned with graciously ushering the losers off the stage and openly just there to fulfill his court-ordered community service. Taylor is charming as the reluctant positive influence and grows to love his position, culminating in the “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” as he laments the elimination of the final (and his favorite) audience speller.
Olive Ostrovsky is one of the more complex characters and is wonderfully portrayed by Chelsea Zeidman. Olive, which she bittersweetly notes can be rearranged to spell “I love,” sings “My Friend, the Dictionary” as she gushes over the ever reliability and comfort of a book in the absence of friendship and her parents’ attention. But when Zeidman sings “The I Love You Song,” her disappointment and longing as a neglected child are beautifully heartbreaking. Braxton as Olive’s mom and Taylor as her dad complement Zeidman with gorgeous harmonies that are a highlight of the musical.
Olive develops a bond with fellow Bee contender William Barfee (Joey Olson). Olson as Barfee (pronounced “Bar-fay!”) is hilarious as the overly confident, and viciously sassy, student who spells his words out with his foot. With a nasally voice, dripping with attitude, Olson zings one-liners subtly under the radar that kept the crowd in stitches throughout the performance. But Olive’s admiration and kindness pull at the underlying insecurities that Barfee’s attitude attempts to hide. Olson and Zeidman have an endearing connection that grounds the show in true emotion amid the levity of ridiculous NSFW hilarity.
Zack Walsh as Leaf Coneybear was an absolute delight, with the innocence and wonder of a baby bird. Walsh is all things loveable as the wide-eyed, unlikely participant who qualifies for the Bee through a series of conflicts with the top two winners. He sings “I’m Not That Smart” with light-hearted self-deprecation that makes you want to scoop him up and bearhug confidence into him.
Rounding off the participants is Shelby Cody as Marcy Clark, the one who excels at everything and sings the indignant “I Speak Six Languages”; Becca Harney as Logainne Schwartzandgrunenierre (Schwartzy), who has overbearing, perfection-seeking dads who fuel her insecurity in “Woe Is Me”; and Kyle Chua as Chip Tolentino, the first of the characters to be eliminated and serenaded with Mahonney’s “Goodbye” song.
PWLT’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is fun and funny. There were a few sound hiccups with feedback, and some of the mics needed to be turned up, but nothing that fazed the cast and can’t be easily resolved.
Riddled with adult humor, the material may not be appropriate for children under 12. One of the songs is titled “My Unfortunate Erection” if that tells you anything.
The show is fast-paced and hits all the comedic notes and then some. PWLT has created a great experience that whets the appetite for unadulterated entertainment and promises to leave you with a grin.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through March 19, 2023, presented by Prince William Little Theatre performing at the Gregory Family Theater in the Hylton Performing Arts Center located at 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, VA. Tickets ($30 for general admission; $24 for seniors, students, and military; and $19 for children) are available for purchase online or by calling (888) 945-2468.
COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required inside the theater.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Additional Material by Jay Reiss
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Mitch Mahoney: Kareem Taylor; Rona Lisa Peretti: Julia Braxton; Olive Ostrovsky: Chelsea Zeidman; Marcy Park: Shelby Cody; Logainne Schwartzandgrunenierre (Schwartzy): Becca Harney; Chip Tolentino: Kyle Chua; Leaf Coneybear: Zack Walsh; William Barfee: Joey Olson; Douglas Panch: Scott Heine
Director: Melanie McGuin; Producers: Becky Gould-Levine and Melanie McCleerey; Stage Manager: Katie Morris; Music Director: Ahyrel Tinker; Choreographer: Meghan Bentley; Keyboardist: Matt Scarborough; Lighting Design: Kurt Gustafson; Sound Design: Tim McCleerey; Costume Design: Susy Moorstein; Properties: Melissa Jo York-Tilley; Set Decoration: Cana Wade; Set Design: Mia Villani; Spotlight: Katherine Blondin; Makeup Design: Caty Kumar