The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Performed by Musical Theatre Guild
Directed by Hubert Hwang
Kresge Little Theater
Runs September 10-12 and 17-19 at 8pm
I completely understood what director Hubert Hwang ’07 meant when he said that MIT students would probably really identify with at least one of the eight main characters in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The middle schoolers aren’t perfect, and while they have some impressive achievements under their belts, they have flaws, insecurities, and personal matters to deal with. We realize it isn’t fair to idolize them: admire them, sure, but don’t place god-like expectations upon them.
Each of the characters is nervous about their ability to succeed in the bee — they are used to being the best speller in their school or town, but once they’ve made it to the county spelling bee, they clearly experience the shock of suddenly becoming average. Sound familiar?
Some of the kids are socially awkward, and we can see the characters begin to realize that you don’t have to one-up your friends (and that you can’t really make friends by doing so). Some are misunderstood and misrepresented; parents and school officials talk up a student’s achievements and make the kid seem like they are “all business.” They have unorthodox methods of determining the spelling of a word and working through problems, and others seem clueless until they have a seemingly magical stroke of inspiration right at crunch time when spelling a word to the judges. A few of the kids have issues with their parents: some parents are overbearing and have high (and perhaps unreasonable) expectations for their children, while other parents aren’t around to support their children, no matter their kid’s achievements.
Dustin Doss’s ’17 performance as Leaf Coneybear was hilarious, and Lindsey Wang ’16 did a good job delivering Olive Ostrovsky’s heartbreaking lines. The dynamic between Vice Principal Panch, played by Kirsten Olson ’14, and Rona Lisa Peretti, played by Sara Volz ‘17, (the judge and the host for the spelling bee respectively) was one of the best parts of the show — they did a good job of playing off one another when addressing the contestants, to much comic effect. I loved the audience involvement, and there was nothing better than watching their faces when they were asked to spell some ridiculous made-up, simple (we’re talking three letters long), or hilariously slang-like word.
I always pay a lot of attention to lighting at concerts and theater performances, and I really liked the use of lighting in this musical. Lighting effects were used to indicate flashbacks, to augment fantastical song and dance sequences, and to indicate when Leaf Coneybear was having his divine/extraterrestrial/trance-induced strokes of spelling genius.
The show is definitely worth seeing, and it is sure to make you laugh at least a few dozen times. It’s no doubt a comedy, but there’s more to the story than middle-school humor. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee includes themes of friendship, family, and dealing with the prospect of failure. It’s a heartfelt story, and I do believe that students will sympathize with the characters.