In “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the nine student actors showed a special talent for smiling in character. Spelling bee moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Olivia Graham ’21) had a beam that was equal parts condescending—as her character required—and endearing. Contestant Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Molly Peterson ’21) had a frenetic grin that revealed both her character’s inner anxieties and the actress’s own tireless energy. Laura Frustaci ’21, who played speller Marcy Park, didn’t smile while in character—but occasionally her lips would flicker up of their own accord after Frustaci got a big laugh from the audience. This was a play of enthusiastically bared teeth: The actors’ smiles were variously earnest, guilty, or superficial, but they were always present. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” had an easygoing and infectious humor. This was a performance that set out to have fun—and succeeded.
The actors had the air of letting the audience in on a big joke, and the cast seemed to be enjoying themselves throughout, making it easy to match their energy. In one instance, four audience volunteers “entered” the Putnam County spelling bee along with the six cast contestants. Their lines were unscripted, and the teachers (Graham and Jonathan Castillo ’21) were at their best when they were interacting with their unprepared victims. “Sophie tried to find a striped shirt to wear this morning,” Graham ad-libbed about an audience member wearing a two-tone color block blouse. “She almost succeeded.” Later, Graham gave an even more audience-specific dig, announcing that “Sophie goes to … an elementary school in Boston.” The actress didn’t wink, but she might as well have.
If much of the show’s humor was derived from the cast’s boisterousness, however, the jokes never belied the attention that cast members paid to their characters. Each actor fully embodied the personality he or she depicted. No matter how ridiculous, the play does not belittle their elementary school spellers. Their juvenile earnestness was sometimes played for laughs (a character is often funniest when he doesn’t realize it), but it was also a source of genuine character development. At any given time, a performer was doing something their speller would do: Leaf Coneybear, a free-spirited homeschooler played by Ben Topa ’21, looked understandably confused during the Pledge of Allegiance. The over-pressured and spiritless Marcy Park appeared robotic while other contestants spelled. The politically minded Logainne smiled ingratiatingly at almost everything. If “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a comedy, it never sacrificed character development for cheap humor.
The talent of the cast, too, was far from a joke. Each speller got at least one major song to him- or herself, giving the actors a chance to showcase athletic dancing and big voices. Frustaci’s number, “I Speak Six Languages,” featured incredibly acrobatic choreography. Sophie Bauder ’21 played Olive Ostrovsky, the show’s underdog, and her forceful performance of “The I Love You Song” was a jarringly emotional moment in an otherwise light play. The people behind the scenes were equally qualified: the choreographer (Fotini Anastopoulos ’20) designed compelling dance numbers, most notably Frustaci’s gymnastics and an impressive kickline during “Magic Foot.” The band was eclectic and interesting: the synthesizer, especially, oscillated rapidly between haunting and humorous. The enthusiasm of its actors defined the show—but its high spirits came alongside a genuine display of talent.
To its credit, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” also had moments of poignancy and self-awareness. The show was strategically placed during Freshman Family Weekend: The cast, all Harvard freshman, were singing to their parents. This made the play’s underlying messages of pressure, familial duty, and parental love strikingly relevant. There was something touching about Harvard students performing a play for their families about what it means to win or to lose, about the costs of success. The ultimate moral of the play is that winning isn’t everything—like in so much fiction, the real answer involves friends and family and love. But in this particular production, such serious themes were coupled with sparkling enthusiasm and engaging humor. As they looked out at their families, the cast members had to know that maybe a first place spelling bee trophy didn’t matter much—but their performance was a whole different kind of win.