A story about six pre-pubescent spelling bee contestants is not exactly an intuitive subject for a musical. But it is precisely the quirky idiosyncrasies of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee that make it such an appealing success. Satirizing the pressure-filled childhoods of middle school overachievers, it tells the simple tale of a county spelling bee while simultaneously capturing the growth of all its individual contestants. Filled with sharp comedy, much of which is improvised, Spelling Bee will have its audiences both falling off their chairs and pondering how to spell the names of obscure South American rodents.
Directed by Beni El-Dalati (COL ’12) and produced by Ellison Roberts (COL ’14), Mask and Bauble’s production of Spelling Bee runs from Feb. 16 to 25 in Poulton Hall. As a musical with improvisational comedy at its base, it provided a unique challenge that required the collaboration of a wide range of staff—actor Joe Madsen (COL ’14) even wrote many of the “use this word in a sentence” examples that form a vital part of the show’s humor. Madsen’s brilliant quips reveal the way that Spelling Bee celebrates offbeat spontaneity. Roberts applauded this “quirky harmony” of the cast and crew, saying it allowed them to “come together in the truest spirit of theater and create something.”
Probably the most unusual aspect of the show is its audience involvement, which allows the participation of four volunteers in the on-stage spelling bee. Though this may cause the volunteers to sweat over the spelling of “panacea,” it effectively adds to the show’s humor by lending an air of serendipity to every laughable moment. Assistant Stage Manager Katherine Sisemore (COL ’15) said “the most important part about the show is the audience involvement.” It is rare that a theatrical production allows for this level of influence from the audience, yet Spelling Bee integrates it with flair.
The story behind Spelling Bee itself weaves together multiple layers, giving life to the seemingly tedious context of a local county spelling bee. El-Dalati said the show “uses something trivial and fills it with as much heart as possible.” Though the outward story of the competition itself unites the six children, it frames each contestant’s personal story with flashbacks and musical sequences while the characters are faced with a litany of spelling words. True to the show’s musical spirit, these stories burst to life through often irreverent songs that tell the awkward tales of everything from self-doubt and unfortunate erections to parental pressures.
By the end of the competition, each contestant learns a personal lesson that memorizing the spelling of “didactic” simply can’t achieve. From discovering the joy of “not living up to expectations” to redefining what it means to win, every speller goes through a process of growth. In this way, Spelling Bee becomes a bildungsroman (language of origin: German) of the most unexpected sort.
“What this show teaches us is that it’s not how we perform that’s important, but rather it’s that we do and what we learn from doing it,” El-Dalati said.