Tuesday, October 24, 2023

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Artistry

Artistry produced the 2005 two-time Tony winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee back in 2014, when they were still known as Bloomington Civic Theatre. But this hilarious, irreverent, and surprisingly sweet musical is worth revisiting. Directed by #TCTheater favorite Tyler Michaels King and featuring a fantastic cast, it's so playful and fun, and also gives you the warm fuzzies about this group of loveably oddball kids just trying their best to spell and be happy. There's only one weekend left to attend the Bee - don't miss it!

The musical takes place in real time during one spelling bee, with six kids who are over-the-top characters. Rounding out the contestants are a few recruits from the audience, which provides some fun opportunities for improv - you never know what will happen when you invite the audience up on stage! Former champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Stephanie Cousins) is hosting this year's bee with Vice Principal Panch (Tod Petersen, reprising his role from Theatre Latte Da's 2011 production), while tough but tender Mitch Maloney (Wariboko Semenitari) acts as "comfort counselor" to fulfill his community service requirement. The oddball kids include past champion Chip (Wesley Mouri), overachiever Marcy (Emma Schuld), flighty Leaf (Tom Reed), neglected Olive (Jillian Sjoquist), pressured Logainne (Gabrielle Dominique), and nasally challenged William Barfee (Brendan Nelson Finn). In between spelling words, we learn a little about each kid's life and family through flashbacks and fantasy sequences. One by one, Mitch escorts them off stage with a hug and a juice box when they hear the bell that indicates they've misspelled a word. Though very different, a love for words and a need to be loved and accepted bind the kids together.*

Chip (Wesley Mouri) spells as the others look on
(photo by Dan Norman)
It's nearly impossible to pick a favorite amongst these "kids," each actor makes such specific and consistent choices in their characterizations. From Tom/Leaf's look of surprised delight at everything, to Gabrielle/Logainne's never wavering lisp, to Emma/Marcy's all-business demeanor (until she's not), to Jillian/Olive's persistent sweetness, to Wesley/Chip's over-confidence, to Brendan/William's... everything! Along with the "adults" - Stephanie's lovely voice and portrayal of Rona's nostalgia, Tod's impatience and breakdown as the VP, and Wariboko bringing their own flair to the normally tough guy role of Mitch - this is a cast that is guaranteed to be on my list of nominees for favorite ensemble of the year. Each one of them is a joy to watch, and they play together very well under director Tyler Michaels King, who puts his comedy and improv skills to good use at the helm of this ship.

If you've never seen a production of Spelling Bee before, you're in for a treat. The score by William Finn (who also wrote Falsettos, a musical that couldn't be more different from this one, currently playing at Theatre Latte Da) is catchy and clever and upbeat, with a few ballads to boot. The script is very funny too, especially in the definitions and sentences of the unusual words being spelled in the competition. Choreographer Stephanie Bertumen has created some fun movement and dancing for these kids.

photo by Dan Norman
The set looks every bit the slightly shabby middle school gym, the only thing missing is the smell (thankfully). Contestants sit on a small set of risers on one side, officials at a table on the other, both set pieces occasionally moved out of the way for fantasy sequences. The small curtained off stage at the back holds the small but mighty five-piece band led by Music Director Raymond Berg, who are in view for most of the show. These oddball characters are perfectly represented by their very specific and colorful oddball costumes (scenic design by Sarah Bahr, costume design by Samantha Fromm Haddow).

Spelling Bee is just a delightful musical, and Artistry's production couldn't be more fun. You have five more chances to see the Bee, and even be a part of it yourself! Click here for info and tickets.

*Plot summary borrowed from what I've written about past productions.