The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

A Lighthearted Look at the Obsessiveness of Middle School Geeks

By: - Dec 04, 2023

Middle School is the worst.  For many, it’s a most difficult time of life – puberty with raging hormones, pimples, fear of the opposite sex, growth spurts.  For some, it becomes an anti-social time of escape – into a private world of computers or video games or books – to be a geek.

In “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” we meet a diverse group of young teens bound by a common skill – spelling - and a common goal – winning.  Spelling excellence is a grinding and lonely pursuit.  All who compete in this Bee are nerds, but each in their own way, and each is motivated by a different set of circumstances.  The audience will recall kids they’ve known and enjoy a light-hearted and entertaining look at growing up.

At one extreme of the competitors, Marcy Park (played by Mai Abe) is stereotyped as the Asian overachiever.  Living on only three hours of sleep a night, she speaks six languages and excels in everything from playing multiple musical instruments to championship rugby and hockey.  At the other extreme, Leaf Coneybear (Blake Kevin Dwyer) is not without competence, making his own over-the-top gaudy clothes.  However, he came in only third in his school but was advanced to the county finals because the top two had a scheduling clash and are attending a bat mitsvah.  An instinctive speller who is the least serious of the competitors, he seems to rely on trances to guide him to the right spelling.

“…Spelling Bee” is a musical comedy that can be appreciated at different levels.  Superficially, it is what it is – funny characters in silly situations with low-brow humor, singing songs that disclose the ridiculousness around them.  But beneath the obvious, social commentary abounds.  Olive’s (Maia Campbell) absent mother is in an ashram in India, and her father doesn’t make time for her or have the $25 entry fee for the contest.  Logainne (Jenni Chapman) lisps, has two adoptive gay fathers, and a last name that is fodder for endless teasing.  William (Beau Bradshaw) is obsessive-compulsive, allergic to peanuts, and spells out letters with his “magic foot.”

The play has some striking characteristics, the most obvious being that young teens are played by adults.  Happily, the actors are young enough and adopt suitable personalities so that the conceit works.  A unique element is that four members from the audience are brought to the stage to act as additional competitors.  This does create spontaneity that works well and will vary from one performance to another.  After being given easy words to spell, like cow, the interlopers are flushed out with impossibly difficult words.

Meanwhile, the situations and songs begin to reveal hidden traits, perhaps the most pervasive concerning the desire to win.  Some might be fiercely competitive, others wanting to lose to escape drudgery or expectations, and a couple maybe consider a sacrifice to advance a romantic relationship.  And of course, there is the ultimate embarrassment that any male who has gone through pubescence can relate to.  Chip (Dave J. Abrams) gets an erection at a most inopportune time.

The adults in the room are at least as amusing as the kids.  The self-promoting, center-of-attention number one real estate agent Rona (Molly Bell – exuberant and with a penetrating soprano voice) is the moderator, while parolee Mitch (Anthone Jackson) is doing his community service by acting as an escort for the participants.

The juiciest role however is Doug (Christopher Reber), a vice-principal who was banned from the Bee several years before for undisclosed unacceptable behavior, though he says that he’s in “a better place” now.  Apart from his general goofiness, when asked by a contestant, he provides a sentence using the word to be spelled.  Most are hilarious.  For instance, the sentence he gives for the word apoop is told with a mock Italian accent - “Drunken sailor Luigi tells his mates ‘I’ma goin apoop’.”  Of course, apoop refers to the stern of a ship, not to a bowel movement.  There are also little ditties about hasenpfeffer made famous by “Laverne and Shirley” and multiple words that are the names of South American rodents.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will probably not appear on many people’s list of Best Ever Stage Musicals, but it brings guilty pleasure enjoyment with sustained humor from beginning to end.  The songs are fun if forgettable, with one exception.  The unchaperoned Olive, in response to the spelling word chimerical (highly unrealistic, wildly fanciful) appropriately reflects with the affecting lament, “The I Love You Song” (Mama, mama, mama) in which she imagines her parents as supportive.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has produced a winsome realization of the musical.  The ensemble of actors nail the personalities and inner lives of the kids, and the adult roles are played with equal authority.  All of the performers provide spot-on comic timing and singing voices to match.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin is produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and plays at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through December 24, 2023.