The sharp, quick clicks of competitive speller William Barfee’s (Justin S. Pereira ’13) tap shoes usher in one of the most hilariously campy scenes in the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” In the following song and dance number, “Magic Foot,” Barfee boasts of the immense power of his feet, which never let him down in a moment of spelling bee need: the antisocial grade-school nerd spells each assigned word by moving his toes to form each of its letters. The impressive dance number exemplifies the ever-mounting and unrelenting zaniness that is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Directed by Alexander M. Willis ’14, last weekend’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Bee” in the Agassiz Theatre set the stage for a spelling bee that throws an unlikely group of quirky characters together. While the production had its errors, it more than made up for them with irreverent improvisation, authentic characters, a strong ensemble, and effective technical production.
The musical develops nine central characters, each of which is idiosyncratically impaired. The contestants are: Chip Tolentino (Tom M. Keefe ’15), a former Putnam County champion struggling with pubescent problems; Leaf Coneybear (Robert A. Flitsch ’15), an eccentric kid who spells only in a trance; Marcy Park (Mindy Yi ’15), a perfectionistic polyglot; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Susanna B. Wolk ’14), the daughter of two gay dads with a severe lisp; Olive Ovstrovsky (Marygabrielle Prezioso ’13), a lonely girl with parental issues; and William Barfee of the “magic foot.”
What makes “The 25th Annual” uniquely entertaining is its audience participation and spontaneity. At the beginning of the show, “spellers” are called out of the audience to participate in the bee with the actors. The cast then makes them sit, dance, and spell among them. The ensemble handled this really well despite some audience members’ being perceptibly hard to control.
The show’s irreverence is best exemplified by the sample sentences presented to the spellers—sentences that vary with each production of the show. For instance, Willis had his cast recite the following sentences for “jihad” and “dystopia”: “Billy, quick, jump behind this Western wall, I think I see a jihad coming!” and “Whenever Billy gets depressed about living in a dystopia, he calls his friend in New Haven.” The cast also audaciously poked fun at the audience. At one point, one tall and stiff audience member was compared to Frankenstein.
This heightened and ridiculous comedy leaves the audience unguarded when the scenes become occasionally serious. “The I Love You Song,” for instance, explores the unrealistic possibility of Olive’s parents’ being physically and emotionally present. Suddenly the moment seems real, and the authenticity of the character surfaces. Beneath the insanity of the characters, the actors managed to make them genuine in Willis’ show.
Individually, there are a few exceptional performances. Prezioso as Olive gives a stunning vocal performance. Likewise, Pereira as Barfee creates a painfully funny character and delivers an impressive tap number in “Magic Foot.” Ryan P. Halprin ’12 as the resentful Mitch Mahoney—the assigned counselor serving his parole—contrasts so harshly that the only defense is laughter. Finally, Elizabeth K. Leimkuhler ’15 as Rona Lisa Peretti—moderator and former bee champion—ties the musical together with unbridled energy expressed through her exceptional, engaging expressions.
The cohesiveness of the ensemble is incredibly important in a show that relies so heavily on improvisation and lacks any clear leading roles. This is where Willis’s strong directing demonstrates itself most clearly. Without decisive directorial guidance, this musical could easily have decayed into chaos, but it did not. The production was staged so the actors could easily interact with, and react to, each other. Scenes changed quickly and naturally, and the pace was brisk. During scenes which brought out individual characters’ fantasies the lights, designed by Gabrielle M. Walti ’14, changed to suggest the unreality of the situation. These cues hit with natural timing.
The musical direction of Alexander T. Valente ’12 ensured an appropriate balance between band and vocalists. For most of the show, the ensemble was strong vocally, hitting harmonies, staying together, and dictating clearly and loudly. It only fell apart in one number, “Pandemonium,” which sounded weak and dissonant.
The ensemble also struggled at times with other aspects. At points the engagement felt shallow and lacking in distinct characterization. Likewise, the ensemble fumbled with freezes during the fantasy scenes, which lacked the crisp synchrony necessary to make them powerful.
While “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” had its noticeable flaws, its strengths outweighed them. The production’s ability to switch from comedy to reality so quickly spoke to the authenticity of its characters. This authenticity drove the message at the core of the musical: that even misfits can belong, and that these characters are more similar than they might at first have seemed.
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Preview: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee“Besides being super campy and fun and silly, this play is also smart and Harvard students can relate to the characters during their discovery of the implications of the drive for success. There is definitely a dark side to the spelling bee,” says Susanna B. Wolk ’14.
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