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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Directed by Dawn M. Erickson ’07

MIT Musical Theater Guild

April 22, 23, 29, and 30, 2011

Kresge Little Theatre

The MIT Musical Theater Guild is performing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee as their spring show, and this production is nothing short of phenomenal. Wisecracks about the unwieldy name aside, the Guild has put their best foot forward with Spelling Bee, and the result is a must-see.

In Spelling Bee, six very distinctive elementary schoolers compete in the titular spelling competition, in the process finding their own sense of self-worth and independence — at least, however much of either a twelve-year-old is likely to have. Each character has his or her own quirk, ranging from the endearing to the unfortunate to the frighteningly familiar. I leave it up to you to decide which is which, but suffice it to say, it’s not difficult to find at least one character with whom to sympathize. A strong sense of wit and light satire pervades the script, which pokes fun at a variety of viewpoints and issues without ever seeming cynical or hostile and avoids the pitfall of letting referential humor dominate the show as a whole.

Spelling Bee is an anomaly compared to many of the other musicals performed on campus, by MTG or otherwise. The show takes place in a petite single act with no intermission, making the show easier to squeeze in during these potentially hectic days near the end the semester. It relies heavily on audience participation, with special emphasis on the “participation.” This is not just a show in which the performers walk through and sing to the front three rows. In fact, a good deal of Spelling Bee’s charm stems from the presence of guest spellers, audience members who have signed up beforehand and, for the first portion of the show, sit onstage among the performers and “compete” in the Bee. I’d be lying if I said the results weren’t a little rigged, but you’d be surprised at how far an audience member can get with a thorough understanding of Scandinavian etymology.

Any guest spellers onstage when a dance number starts will be fully involved in the choreography, which is necessarily simple in order to accommodate the audience members. Guest spellers get a hug from Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney, played by Carlos Cardenas ’09, and a juice box. While I ended up not drinking my juice box, I did learn a new term for dog excrement, the spelling of which I will never forget. It really is true what they say — it’s easy to forget even the simplest things when there’s a light in your face and a microphone in front of you.

All other points aside, the real appeal of this production is its cast. All of the actors take on their odd and often bizarre roles with ease, even in spite of frequent doubling of minor roles. There isn’t a weak singer to be found in the ensemble, and the catchy musical numbers benefit from the cast’s vocal talents. Cardenas, a veteran (and recurring highlight) of numerous MTG productions, is in especially fine form as Mitch, although almost every character gets his or her memorable moment to shine. Perhaps the more impressive aspect of the cast’s performance is their ability to stay in character despite having to baby-sit the audience members in their midst. Those who remain after the show will see how cogent, cheerful, and capable of unimpeded respiration the actors actually are in contrast to their roles — a testament to their talent.

The Musical Theatre Guild, frankly, deserves a trophy for their production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and fittingly, they already have one. Although there have been MTG shows in the past that I couldn’t recommend vigorously enough, this is possibly the first show that I can say with conviction seems to me to be flawlessly executed.