“I really tried to center the production around the idea ... of spelling bee magic,” director Dave Dalton said of the drama department’s latest production, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” A musical comedy that invites audience participation, the play follows six quirky students on their journey through the most cutthroat competition in town. During their pursuit of first prize, the children reveal the trials and tribulations associated with being the best, all while balancing their own personal complications.
The outstanding feature of the U.Va. Drama production — which began its run at Culbreth Theatre April 18 — was the ability of the ensemble cast to express the eccentricities of their respective characters. From the absurdity of Barfée’s “magic foot” method of spelling to the ill-timed nature of Tolentino’s “uncomfortable protuberance” after catching the eye of a fellow competitor’s sister, the entire play felt like an extended “Saturday Night Live” skit — barely realistic but completely entertaining. The role of Leaf Coneybear was portrayed brilliantly as well, especially during moments when the character channeled a primordial spirit that knew how to spell the names of various South American rodents.
The less brazen touches, such as second-year College student Veronica Seguin’s lisp in her portrayal of Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, provided the audience with subtle reminders of the youthfulness of otherwise mature characters. Although third-year College student Jack Dunkenberger’s portrayal of Official Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney was uneven, he redeemed himself in the role of SchwartzandGrubenniere’s father, Dan — particularly through snarky quips at his husband, Carl.
“[I was looking for] a sense of humor and a willingness to play around in auditions, and then obviously the ability to sing — it’s a deceptively difficult musical to sing,” Dalton said about the casting process.
The inclusion of audience participants also enhanced the utter ridiculousness of the production. Recruited prior to the show, guests were able to join the cast onstage in the spelling madness, being introduced with strange facts vaguely related to a list of hobbies they provided. The audience recruits were given words ranging in difficulty from “cow” to “vigintillion.”
“It was great to finally see [the play] with an audience and see how the audience responds to volunteer spellers,” Dalton said.
However, the play includes predetermined rules designed to eliminate all volunteer spellers before the intermission. While such moments were made clear to the audience, this information did not alleviate the pain of seeing the last volunteer speller eliminated on opening night — their forced loss was just as tragic as that of any actual cast member.
The staging of the show allowed Dalton to bring the interplay between fantasy and reality to the forefront of the production. A “stage-within-a-stage” in Culbreth Theatre permitted characters’ memories to be shown concurrently with their present situations. Additionally, in a deviation from the script, the “Pandemonium” number was inspired by the etymology of the word itself.
“I looked up the word ‘pandemonium’ and found that it was coined by Milton in ‘Paradise Lost’ to describe the capital of Hell,” Dalton said. “And so I thought if we’re doing this whole fantasy thing anyway … it would be great to have a kid’s version of Hell.”
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” proved fun for all viewers, whether invited to participate in the insanity or not. The hilarity that ensued at every moment in the production was balanced well by the emotionally complex backstories detailing how each participant reached this level of competition. With topical references to current events and sexual innuendos to spare, this is one spelling bee that must not be missed.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is showing at Culbreth Theatre until April 27.