25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: Witty and Nostalgic

By Nicole Zelazko, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Upon hearing that Niles West Theater was to put on The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee, the thought of my own spelling bee experience rushed to my mind. I was a finalist in my second grade class and was lucky enough to advance to the school-wide Bee. Nerves flooded every crevice of my body as I approached the microphone. The principal, with one hand leaning on the plastic table, read my word out loud: CABIN.

“Easy,” I thought to myself. I stood tall and began to recite the letters with confidence: “C-A-B-E-N. Cabin!”

Hearing the words “spelling bee” for the first time since my embarrassing scene in elementary school made me laugh instantly. I knew this play was going to be good — when is awkward adolescence not?

The set could not have been more perfect. It truly felt handcrafted, from the colorful posters to the bubble-letter “Spelling Bee” sign. As I waited for the show to begin, I noticed the audience fill with people of all ages. Older audience members marched in with a smile, as they scaled the room with their eyes. The younger students, especially those in middle school, disregarded the hefty set; it was nothing new to them. I was eager for the play to begin, as was everyone around me.

The show opened with a flashback of character Rona Lisa Peretti, played by junior Amber Ilisie, winning her own Spelling Bee with the word “syzygy.” Her winning scene was shortly followed by a musical number, which helped introduce all the characters, and gave the audience insight into their personal motivations for competing in the Bee. The music caught me off guard — I had no idea the play was a musical. Luckily, the voices of the actors were solid (as always), so it was a pleasant surprise.

Soon after, Rona invited four “guest spellers” from the audience. This was a unique experience: throughout the variety of “interactive” plays I’ve attended, I’ve never been to one where the audience members are pulled up onto stage to participate in the show. This truly created a sense of intimacy to the show, since no two shows can be the same. Audience members are led by the cast through multiple musical numbers and then asked to participate in the Bee. This unique format led to many genuine laughs and a tangible connection between the audience and the cast.

As the show went on, the audience continued to learn more and more about the quirks of each individual character, from the use of a magic foot to a speech impediment. I found myself taking multiple trips down memory lane, each time thinking of the little quirks I acquired throughout middle and elementary school. But while laughs were founded on these specific actions, the Bee turned from lighthearted to dark.

Everyone has a backstory, and being a middle-schooler in the Putnam County Bee is no different. The show took a quick turn once the individual characters had their solo songs. We began to learn that behind the perfect Marcy Park, played by Tricia Pabst, is a tired, restless kid, bored of her routine. On the opposite side of the spectrum was Logainne Shwartzandgrubenierre, played by Lily Gussis; her overly-joyous persona was challenged once seeing her overbearing fathers’ influence on her delicate self. This theme continued on throughout the show, as each character had their personal problems. This was a nice reminder to treat everyone with kindness.

The one critique I would give this show is that at multiple times, the actors’ voices were hard to hear. Since the music was live, it seemed to overpower the actors’ voices at times. This may have been solely due to the fact that this small show was performed in the auditorium, rather than the usual Black Box Theater. Since the show needs both the voices and the music to get the full effect, it is understandable why the music was loud. Other than that, the show was nearly flawless.

This Spelling Bee truly is a “feel-good” musical that puts a smile on everyone by the end of the night. It gives you a nice escape into the lives of innocent middle-schoolers with backdrops that one could never imagine. It is always nice to have a sprinkle of nostalgia, and there is no one better than the Niles West Theatre department to help you find that past story.