‘Putnam County Spelling Bee’ spells must-see at Compass Rose Theater

The musical shows the quirky, chaotic side of middle school spelling bees, and the actors have excellent comic timing and hit the emotional moments well.

Compass Rose Theater’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a hilarious take on childhood and competition. The 2005 musical, conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn, and book by Rachel Sheinkin, shows the quirky, chaotic side of middle school spelling bees. Directed by Tommy Malek, with musical direction by Rachel Sandler, it also skillfully uses musical improvisation and audience participation, with several audience members taking place in the bee.

Beth Amann plays Rona Lisa the adult host, with great confidence and poise. She introduces each contestant as they approach the microphone with a funny fact. In her “Rona Moment” solos, she sings joyfully of her favorite moments of the bee, from the surprise loss of the previous year’s winner to the suspense of the final two contestants.

Omar A. Said (Panch), B.J. Robertson (Mitch), Lila Cooper (Olive), Stephen Emery (Barfée), Beth Amann (Rona Lisa), Taylor Litofsky (Logainne), Sam Slottow (Leaf), and Cera Baker (Marcy) in ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.’ Photo by Joshua Hubbell.

Omar Said plays Panch, the Vice-Principal leading the bee, with great comic relief. Every definition or sentence using the word to be spelled that he gives has an unexpected joke in it.

B.J. Robertson gives a quiet intensity to Mitch, who escorts each loser off the stage with a juice box. He reveals his feelings in “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor,” sultrily singing and dancing with one loser.

Lila Cooper gives a nervous nerdiness to Olive, a new contestant. In “My Friend the Dictionary,” she sings of her complicated homelife and love of words. She giddily shares with other contestants funny ways of rearranging words. In “The I Love You Song,” with Amann as her mother and Robertson as her father, she heartbreakingly sings of her loneliness toward her parents as they raise her.

Stephen Emery plays Barfée with great intensity. Marking off a place for himself on the floor, he yells at anyone who intrudes. In “Magic Foot,” he shows his unusually physical method for spelling, tap dancing, and high-kicking. In a comic “Pas De Deux” with Cooper, he spins and leaps.

Preston Grover gives a nervousness to Chip, the winner from last year. He protests the disparity in complexity of the words being given, and his own loss when he is distracted. In “Chip’s Lament,” he hurls candy at the audience while singing about why he was distracted.

Cera Baker gives a comic intensity to Marcy, a Catholic school student. She robotically provides a definition for each word, after a brief eye twitch. She silently prays in the seat. In “I Speak Six Languages,” she shows off her multiple talents, including karate and fan-dancing, while also revealing her vulnerabilities. In a hilariously unexpected encounter, she goes through an epiphany.

Taylor Litofsky plays Logainne with a great nervousness. In “Woe Is Me,” with Sam Slottow and Robertson playing her dads, she shows the intense pressure at home to succeed. She traces each word on her arm. Losing, she sadly sings of how her dad “hates a loser.”

Sam Slottow gives a manic playfulness to Leaf. He rolls around the floor and roars in his animal hoodie, generally behaving like a goofy kid. In “I’m Not That Smart,” he reveals how everyone, even his family, underestimates him, and how he even surprises himself, spelling the words correctly.

The three audience participants were also great sports. They played along splendidly, asking for definitions of their words and for them to be used in a sentence. They even danced with the actors. Each performance will have different people chosen from the audience.

Omar A. Said (Panch), Beth Amann (Rona Lisa), B.J. Robertson (Mitch), Taylor Litofsky (Logainne), Cera Baker (Marcy), Preston Grover (Chip), Sam Slottow (Leaf), Lila Cooper (Olive), and Stephen Emery (Barfée) in ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.’ Photo by Joshua Hubbell.

Set Designer Sammy Jungwirth evokes a school auditorium with tiered benches in the right-hand corner and a table with juice boxes in the left. A mic stand is placed up front, while inspirational posters are on the wall. Costume Designer Tommy Malek distinguishes all the characters with their outfits. Panch wears a blue suit and yellow bow tie, while Rona Lisa is in a red dress and jacket. Leaf wears eccentrically colorful pants and a green hoodie, changing to a tank top as Logainne’s father. Logainne has a pink tutu over denim suspenders, while Olive is in pink suspenders. Barfee has cargo shorts and a plaid sweater, with Marcy looking proper in a red jacket and plaid skirt.

Lighting Designer Atticus C. Boidy shines blue and red lights across the stage during dramatic moments. Spotlights highlight the singers in emotional moments. Sound Designer Zach Sexton adds to the comedy with unusual, funny sounds.

Musical Director Rachel Sandler keeps the music lively and loud, although sometimes it overwhelms the singers and makes it difficult to hear the lyrics. Tommy Malek does a wonderful job as director and choreographer. The actors all have different childlike mannerisms and tics, making them feel very much like kids, while also being different enough to tell them apart. They have lots of funny movements and dance sequences. They all have excellent comic timing and also hit the tender emotional moments well. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a funny, adult reminder of the craziness and silly seriousness of middle school. It spells must-see!

Running Time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through April 28, 2024, presented by Compass Rose Theater performing at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts (third floor), 801 Chase Street, Annapolis, MD. Purchase tickets ($25–$55) online or call 410-980-6662.


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