The Fannin Performance Hall stage erupted into chaos on Feb. 9 as six Richland students tried to outdo each other to win a spelling bee. Song and dance, plus the ability to spell words correctly, drew the audience right into the action.
It was all part of the Richland Drama Department’s first spring production, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
The musical was 90 minutes of just plain fun with a variety of diverse characters competing in an intellectual competition – with no intermission.
The action took place in the gym at the fictional Putnam County Middle School in Anytown, USA.
“Spelling Bee” was conceived by Rebecca Feldman and originally produced on Broadway, with music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss.
Richland drama director Gregory Lush described “Spelling Bee” as “100 percent a musical-comedy.” And indeed it was.
Nine student actors kept the audience spellbound with lots of action among them to compete. To add to the fun before the musical began, three people in the audience were randomly selected to join the six student competitors onstage. Some of the words presented were “strabismus, capybara, lugubrious, Mexican and cow.”
The rules stated that the contestants could ask for the meaning of the word, its origin and that it be used in a sentence – before attempting to spell it.
The spelling bee took place in a school gym with a sparse set consisting only of bleachers, a table with trophies of previous winners, a Texas and an American flag and a sign that read, “Putnam Optometrist, See Us.” Most importantly, the microphone was placed at the front of the stage so the competitors could be heard.
Each of the student competitors were “super quirky,” as Lush described them. They included: Chip Tolentino (Ben Stegmair), a Putnam former winner; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, or “Schwartzy,” (Beth Long) who had two gay fathers and wrote words on her arm with her finger; Leaf Coneybear (Sheldon Vielma), plagued by attention deficit disorder; Olive Ostrovsky (Catherine Christenson), who reads the dictionary and failed to pay the $25 entrance fee for the competition; William Barfee (Andres Camacho), who spells words on the floor with his foot and Marcy Park (Christina Hollie), an over-achiever.
Three adults in charge of the spelling bee kept the competition moving. Rona Lisa Perretti (Kim Dominguez), who won the competition 22 years ago, started this year’s competition with the word, “syzygy.”
Costume designer Anaïs Jaquez did an excellent job of matching Rona Lisa’s brown jacket and skirt with Vice Principal Douglas Panch’s (Alex Istrate) brown suit. Both sat at a table on the right of the stage judging the competition.
And what would a competition be without a “comfort counselor” for the losers? Jimmy Jensen was great in his role as Mitch, the strong, tough guy lurking in the background waiting for each contestant to fail. Everyone listened intensely for the little bell that sounded when someone misspelled a word.
That’s when Jensen walked up to the student, slowly escorted them down the stairs and out of the competition. (I, for one, couldn’t help but feel sorry for them.)
There were some great musical numbers throughout “Spelling Bee,” and the actors performed and sang a variety of songs, including “Pandemonium,” “Magic Foot” and “The Rules,” among many others.
Choreographer Kelly McCain created some exciting dance moves. Chad Ostermiller, Kelley Rodriguez and Michael Ptacin made up the band.
The rather bizarre competition had two happy winners: Barfee won first place and a prize of a $200 savings bond.
Some of the most hilarious scenes were when Camacho (Barfee), with his distinct, commanding voice, would correct the judges for mispronouncing his name shouting, “It’s not Barfee, it’s Barfay!”
His weird body gyrations as he tried to spell words with his right foot on the floor drew lots of laughter from the audience. Ostrovsky won second place for $25, but she owed that much for being in the competition.
“Spelling Bee” was one of the funniest and most exciting musicals produced on the Richland stage.