In a world defined by autocorrect, it’s unnecessary to memorize the correct spellings of words such as syzygy, chinchilla, or elanguescence. But in the Columbia Musical Theatre Society’s uniquely intimate and impressively performed production of “The 25thh Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” spelling is paramount.
From Oct. 19 to 21, CMTS presented “The Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical comedy originally by William Finn, in the Diana Center’s Glicker Milstein Theater. The all-female production team included Nina Lam, BC ’19, making her directorial debut, as well as producer Emeline Bookspan, BC ’20, and choreographer Harmony Graziano, CC ’19.
The musical is centered on six middle schoolers, each with their own quirks and varying levels of spelling bee experience, embarking on the quest to win the titular competition. From the moment the competition begins, the show portrays the journey of each speller through the contest with varying levels of tenacity, jitters, and in some cases, dumb luck, interspersed with flashbacks to their individual backstories.
Teacher Rona Lisa Perretti, portrayed by Anna Stacy, SPS ’17, is an administrator of the bee. As a once-spelling champion herself, she is desperate to return to her former glory. Stacy shined in this role, humorously over-emphasizing the importance of what is simply only a middle school spelling bee.
Standouts also included Talmage Wise, CC ’18, as William Barfée and his “magic foot,” wiggling its way through the air to spell words on his behalf, and Rachel Greenfeld, BC ’19, impeccably playing the perpetually disinterested Marcy Park.
Sophia Houdaigui, BC ’21, gave a heartrending performance of “I Love You Song” as Olive, in which she used the posed word “chimerical” to fantasize about having parents who would care enough to attend the spelling bee and tell her “I love everything about you.”
Apart from this poignant penultimate scene, the show was wholly comical, and audience laughter swelled through the theater throughout the show. Garnering the greatest responses were Columbia-Barnard specific gags, such as when Putnam’s Vice Principal Paunch, portrayed by William Cagle, CC ’20, explained he was stepping in to facilitate the bee for a principal who “had recently taken a job at Lincoln Center,” a reference to ex-Barnard President Debora Spar’s departure last semester.
To simulate the feeling of attending a middle school spelling bee, Lam focused on the organization of the stage. The musical is usually performed in a proscenium arch theater, but Lam opted instead for a black box theater setting, with the audience situated on three of four sides of the action.
“The idea behind that is to give it a more intimate feel,” Lam said. “I feel like the audience represents the pressures the spellers face from all different sides, tensions and stressors that surround them at the spelling bee. ... It’s a really big moment in their lives.”
This setting also allowed for audience members to immerse themselves in the bee, closer to cast members than they would have been in a proscenium setting. Nondescript audience members were often even included as “characters”—a front row woman adoringly referred to as a “crush of a speller.”
Though a distinctive trait of original “Spelling Bee” productions is to bring in random audience members to compete with actors, these moments abruptly broke the suspension of reality as the choreographed, dynamic inflections of the actors were discordant with the audience members’ monotone responses. While Cagle’s and Stacy’s adjoining banter helped make these interspersed moments more humorous, these instances were nonetheless a lull in the otherwise consistent fast-paced action.
Still, “Spelling Bee” remained altogether enjoyable because of its fun, lighthearted nature. At the end, with simple sincerity, the cast sang its final goodbye, wrapping a successful performance. Though not flawless, it was certainly charming, a pleasantly funny pandemonium that left audiences uplifted. In other words, it was simply e-b-u-l-l-i-e-n-t.