Thursday, March 23 was the opening night for Eastern’s production of “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” All in all, the show proved to be a delightfully sweet and zany comedy. The basic premise of the musical is a county spelling bee, full of highly idiosyncratic 12-year-olds who each bring their own unique backstory to the surprisingly intense competition.
The highlight of the show by far was the wonderfully odd array of characters brought to life convincingly and humorously by the cast. Matthew Ernst played borderline-insane Vice Principal Douglas Panch—the word reader for the bee, whose responses to competitors’ requests to define words and use them in a sentence only grew more outrageous as the play went on. When one competitor asked him to define the word “cow” he responded exasperatedly, “It means cow!” And when another competitor asked him to use the word “Mexican” in a sentence, he responded with, “Guacamole is the Mexican pudding.” Imagine all of this combined with an aggressively nasal, Miranda-Sings-esque voice, and you can imagine why Ernst’s portrayal of Vice Principal Panch had me laughing out loud for the entirety of the show.
And then there was Rona Lisa Peretti (yes, her name rhymes with “Mona Lisa”), played by Caroline Campbell—the overinvested former spelling bee champ in charge of the whole thing. Campbell played her as the perfect combination of overzealous spelling fanatic and prim school marm.
And then there were the spellers—a fabulously quirky and diverse bunch, each brought to life in a unique and endearing way by various cast members. There was Logainne Schwartzangrubenniere (yes, her last name really is that long), played by Carly Nuneviller—an over-pressured, perfection-seeking girl who also happened to have a severe lisp and somehow always got stuck spelling words with multiple “s” sounds. There was Marcy Park, played by Amy Tuck—an overachieving wonderchild who excelled at everything and spoke six languages. There was Olive Ostrovsky, played by Sydney Becker—a sweet, dictionary-loving girl who just wanted her parents’ affirmation. Jared Maier played Leaf Coneybear, a quirky, superhero-cape-wearing boy just trying to impress his family. Bryan Eltman played former spelling bee champ Chip Tolentino, a spiffy used-to-winning type.
And last, but certainly not least, Ethan Pierson brought charm, humor and vitality to the role of William Barfee—a socially awkward yet dignified kid who showed up clad in a green velvety coat and bright orange scarf. He repeatedly said “I know” after being told he spelled a word correctly, stretched dramatically and excessively before every word, employed his own unique “magic foot” method of spelling each word on the ground with his foot and (spoiler alert!) won the bee in the end.
The musical involved a number of unexpected and heartwarming turns. There was the moment when the all-around-perfect Marcy Park decided to throw the bee and free herself from having to be perfect at everything. There was the moment when Logainne decided that ethics were more important than trophies, despite pressure from her parents to think the opposite. And my personal favorite was the moment when Olive Ostrovsky and William Barfee found themselves competing against each other as the only two remaining spellers and ultimately realized that through their shared love of words they had forged a friendship much more valuable than any trophy.
One of the strongest elements of the musical was its ability to bring humor to an unexpected realm and to help us take joy in a wide array of human idiosyncrasies. One of the songs centered on the phrase “life is pandemonium,” and ultimately, I think the entirety of the play reflected the truth of this line, yet suggested that we find ways to laugh at the pandemonium of life. The production was not only a lighthearted laugh-inducing tale of competitive spelling, but also a reminder to take joy in the quirks of others and to find the humor embedded in daily life.