“Can you spell B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L?”
~Ashley McMillan, Arts & Entertainment Editor~
As the lights begin to dim, and the contestants start to walk the stage, the Diamonstein Theatre exhibits a newfound energy. Other TheaterCNU productions have showcased extravagant stages and have embellished a beautiful chaos that typically starts the show. This time around, the unexpected from “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has brought TheaterCNU into a new chapter of theatrical performance.
Directed by Julian Stetkevych, the musical comedy follows six awkward, yet unique middle school students alongside a handful of background, revolving characters as they attempt to win the county-wide spelling bee. To reach the county spelling bee, each contestant has to win or place in their school’s spelling bee. The winner not only gets bragging rights, but also a cash prize and a trip to Nationals. With the music and script by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn, and a little room for improvisation creatively held by the cast, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee provides a reminder of eccentric youth through a competitive middle school spelling bee.
When the production begins, the audience is introduced to two contrasting, facilitating members of the spelling bee at hand, Rona Lisa Pretti (played by Sarah Allbrandt) and Vice President Douglas Panch (played by Barrett Goode). The two began to present the musical comedy as if the event that took place was an actual county spelling bee; the beginning of the production gave a natural entrance into the show, making it feel as if the audience had just walked into the competition. After a short while, the event then turned into a beautiful production of musical extravagance and dark-humored comedy, but that is for later discussion within this article.
With the stage managed by Anna Galanides and scenery designed by Dr. David Shuhy, the whole musical has an intrinsic style that allows not only the room to showcase each individual actor in a prominent way, but also allows the ability to socially distance. Each actor is placed six feet from each other, separated with long plexiglass dividers in order to safely present the emotional depth of each character while ensuring the safety of each actor. Though each competitor is placed far from each other, with no physical touch happening between each other, the lighting and extravagance of each performance captivates the audience’s attention in totality. It was as if TheaterCNU doesn’t need to have physical touch to exhibit emotionally-charged scenes, though encapsulated a new sort of theatrical presentation with how the stage was handled. The precise lighting techniques by Ryan Bible allowed each scene to fully capture the viewer’s attention, allowing the audience to understand the emotional presence of the room. For instance, blue light captured some stand-stills and red lights presented slow-moving, overly dramatic scenes. The orchestra’s music that aligned itself within the musical, conducted by Colin Ruffer, smoothed along the story in a seamless manner, whether it was delightful or comical in addition to each scene (nonetheless, beautifully well-done). Regardless of the lighting and music that structured each scene, the stage team of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee did not fail to repeatedly excite the audience all-around.
Not only did the staging, lighting and sound technicalities of the show not fail, the actors commanded the stage throughout the whole production. The entire cast simply drove the story with their realistic, child-like presentation upon the stage. The costume designing, produced by costume designer Kathleen Jaremski, simply encapsulated the youthful exuberance, the sincere individuality each contender had — there were no two characters alike throughout this production, as there were multiple characteristics we all have encountered during our time in middle school. The long pleated skirts, the over-worn gaming tee shirt, the neon pink dress, the ridiculously-high geometric socks, the Boy Scout uniform and the ever-so popular overalls. These key pieces presented by costume design totally captured my attention on who demonstrated which type of stereotypical middle schooler.
Each actor lived out their character to the fullest extent. Leaf Coneybear (played by Bryson Olivio) is a playful, exuberant boy who goes against all odds despite his family’s lack of faith in his abilities. He only placed third in his school’s spelling bee, and only came to the county spelling bee for the reason the top two couldn’t come — though that didn’t stop him from reaching his fullest potential. Mr. Coneybear’s family was known to be unsupportive, which was intentionally shown to remind the audience throughout, but when Leaf started to spell, all lights but one went out. Only one light stood still, presenting Leaf as the star of the spelling bee, unbothered by anyone around him. With so many obstacles that stood in his way, he persevered — which is monumental for middle school life. The performance given by Olivio truly encaptured the youthful, gamer character in not only in a comedic fashion, but also as a serious symbol for the middle school hardships we all face in its frightful new social sphere. This is directly a contrast to Marcy Park (played by Renee Kauffman) who is looked up to by most peers for her academic performance and drive. Nevertheless, in the performance we see Marcy step down from her perfect stool after a religious aha-moment with her role model, Jesus. Between the two characters, the beautiful way they connect with their own self is complex yet revolving perceptual mind is reflective of the growth during one’s middle school years.
Yet for the character Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (played by Amelia Burkley), not only did Ms. Burkley transition her hair into an untamed mess, a specific trait of middle school carelessness, but additionally skillfully presented a lisp. The lisp — an eerily familiar memory of mine from middle school, before speech therapy became a consistent part of my life. I familiarized myself with her performance throughout the musical, especially when her dads of contrasting parenting styles were brought into the environment. Burkley truly emphasized what it means to be all-over-the-place during our middle school years, especially when it came to family life. Her performance, as it did concern a silly nature to it with some aspects of confusing lectures from her parents, was overall seriously well done.
Besides the obstacles of one’s journey to a somewhat mature personality, the other three main characters presented another menacing growth period that was central in middle school — sexuality and puberty. Charlito “Chip” Tolentino (played by Matt Stevenson) executed a key role in displaying sexuality as he presented to us, the audience, his “crush,” who was in his competition’s audience. As Chip continued to display his affection towards his crush, his “puberty” began to present itself to the whole competition — which then led to his main performance of “Chip’s Lament.” This comical performance of Chip’s erection not only gave a dark humored laugh, but also symbolized the embarrassing triumphs that middle school boys persevered through. The performance by Mr. Stevenson was heartfelt, yet you can see the pain in his eyes throughout “Chip’s Lament,” which aligned with the middle school guilt towards sexuality. Beyond this, the other two characters that presented sexuality within middle school were Olive Ostrovsky (played by Charlie Grass) and William Barfée (played by Peyton Townsend). As their relationship grew throughout the performance, even towards the end as they were the last two standing, it was interesting to see how the two performed a socially-stanced, yet emotionally-charged performance. Townsend and Grass truly presented their vocal talent, and additionally, executed scenes that entailed that no physical touch was needed to create a cute and “romantic” (“romantic” as middle school love can get) atmosphere.
Throughout the whole musical, there were distinct acts that would drive the show along in such a creative way. Choreographer Laura Lloyd made perfect use of the large space, where gaps filled the room. Actors would move in such a manner, consistently remaining in character. At one point in the show, everything turned red and the cast had to move in slow motion for about a minute and a half, which was interesting to see from my own eye view in person. On top of this, the addition of having the additional competitors from the back row revolve into other characters throughout the show was impeccably done. As each performer sat in their plexiglass stall, items in a black box sat simply behind them, ready to be used for a new side character. Actors Emily Phelps, James Pettus, Amara Breisch and John Byrd revolved into new characters throughout the production, exhibiting their transitional talent as they moved onto another character. This stylistic choice was not only safely done for social-distancing purposes, but also kept the consistent seamless style to new scenes. The performers not only created an uninterrupted transition for new characters to be introduced for the storyline, but also provided a visual representation of a competitor’s home life. This detail perfectly enveloped the entire production as a beautiful retelling of the “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Throughout the entirety of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” I was baffled with memories of embarrassing, adorable and especially confusing experiences from way-back-then. The musical comedy presented by TheaterCNU was thoroughly beautiful in every way — and it seems that the circumstances that the department had to overcome only made this performance better. TheaterCNU stepped into a new theatrical territory, and visually presented in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” in an appealing nature, despite the hardships thrown at them. It seems as though that this musical comedy displayed the hurdles of middle school life, while the production in itself granted a hurdle of itself. And now, I digress: I’m excited to see what lies ahead after this new direction of creative and innovative theatrics was introduced to the Christopher Newport community.