25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Producer Jackie Simpson '14
Director Dawn Erickson '07
Music Director Matthew Putnam '09
Vocal Director Danbee Kim '09
Choreographer Dawn Erickson '07
Technical Director Edmund Golaski '99
Stage Manager Christiana Toomey
Set Designer Kelsey Brigance '12
Publicity Manager Kaitlin Burroughs
Publicity Designer Helen O'Keefe '09
Program Designer Daniel Sngiem '12
Lighting Designer Sophie Lee '12
Master Electrician Becky Bianco '12
Chip Zach Barryte '13
Olive Betsy Flowers
Rona Krista Sergi
Marcy Amanda Lazaro
Leaf Rachel Bowens-Rubin 11
Barfee Christopher Puchi
Logainne Jasmine Florentine '11
Mitch Carlos Cardenas '09
Panch Jeffrey "Q" Quinlan
Yet another production has cropped up of "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" in Massachusetts, specifically with MIT's Musical Theatre Guild. I had seen the show done before, but didn't review it. This was a chance to see a new interpretation and go through my thoughts. The music and Lyrics were by William Finn, best known for his work on "A New Brain" and "Falsettos". The book was written by Rachel Sheinkin. Before I saw the show, I was very familiar with the music and really enjoyed the concept. This was a college production so I wanted to see what direction they took.
The story takes place in the gynamsium of the local middle school where 6 youngsters, played by adults, compete in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The characters included William Barfee, or rather BarFAY, who spells out his words first with his foot, Olive, a neglected child whose best friend is the dictionary, Leaf Coneybear, a child of hippies who is easily distracted, Marcy Park, a studious child prodigy, Chip Tolentino, last years straight laced champion, and lastly Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the youngest and most politically concious speller. To moderate is Putnam County's number one realtor and former champion, Lisa Rona Peretti and Vice Principal Douglas Panch. To help counsel the ones who don't make it through, is ex-con Mitch Mahoney, doing his community service. Guest spellers are invited on the stage and interact with the cast members. The show requires a great deal of improvisation and creative words and spelling.
When I saw the stage, I felt the set was a bit of a let down. Kelsey Brigance's created a simple enough set with bleachers and a table, but that was about it. It never went beyond this concept, as I wouldv'e liked to see more of a dressed set, giving the feel of being in an actual gynamsium. Perhaps a banner or two would've given it a bit more flavor, creating a world to get in to. Sophie Lee's lighting design was at times a bit confusing. I felt at times that colors that were used througout various numbers were thrown in just to give color to a moment, with no real intention behind it. However, it worked for some scenes, though, including the rousing "Pandemonium" where hightened craziness was present, but it lacked consistently throughout the rest of the show. Also, there were several black spots in the lighting which was very distracting. Between that and actors putting themselves in black spots, it took away a great deal from the show.
The performances in the show didn't mesh as well as they could've. Even though everyone is hamming it up and having a good time, one of the more noticable things was the fact the break down's of the vocal parts were poorly assigned. Some people were given parts they couldn't sing as strongly and others were given songs that were challenging due to their ranges. The actors were also given fairly simple choreography but they never really committed to a lot of it at some points, and it felt like they were going through the motions. They did however have a chance to be a little erratic during bigger group numbers, which in some cases worked. Rachel Bowens-Rubin, who was cross cast as Leaf Coneybear plays the role a bit too distracting and erratic. She at least she looks like shes commited to having fun, but she never really establishes a consistent character. Zach Barryte plays Chip Tolentino, who like everyone else, has fun with the role, but brings a tad too much intensity to the character. In his number "My Unfortunate Erection" he is near to the point of yelling, causing the audience to become a little uncomfortable not because of the song itself, but his interpretation of it. Amanda Lazaro's Marcy Park is strongly established and she seems calm but with a underlying frustration, creating a good character choice. However, her number "I Speak Six Languages" lacks a bit of commitment to the movement and vocal strength to carry it throughout. Betsy Flowers' Olive is good as well and she manages to pull off a nice sweet individual who you feel for lack of parent attention. During her number "The I Love You Song" she in her own touching way, loses herself with the vision of her parents, desiring only to be united with them. Jeffrey "Q" Quinlan plays a simple enough Panch, but doesn't really tell us what kind of character he is. Though he has good comedic timing, he is a bit repetitive in his on stage choices. Jasmine Florentine's Logainne gives a decent performance as a politically concious child who struggles with her own overbearing two dads. She sings it well and gives us a solid journey. Krista Sergi's Rona Lisa Peretti is played sweetly and you feel that she is truely a caring and loving individual. She is assertive in her attitude. Carlos Cardenas plays the silent and intimidating Mitch Mahoney extremely well, who deep down is a bit of a softie. He carries his own number "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" with killer pipes, utter confidence and joy. Christopher Puchi pulls off a triple threat that is Barfee. He is clearly comfortable in the role, full of confidence and silliness and is fearless showing off his crisp dancing and singing in "Magic Foot". Even though there was a split between stronger and softer singers, evert actor clearly had fun with their characters as it showed throughout.
Dawn Erickson's direction at times made sense, specifically bringing characters throughout the audience as well as having the guest spellers be pulled into various dance numbers. However, there should have been a bit more work with character development, as it felt some actors were given free range and not being pulled back. She does a good job of bringing it all together but at many times the attention was pulled away because of sudden choices by the actors during pivotal scenes. At several points, the production lacked the strength and potential to amplify simpler moments and often had too much for the moments that were meant to be savored. As far as the music, Music Director Matt Putnam chose to rewrite a lot of the score which seemed odd at the time, but he and his orchestra manage to pull off a strong sound. As they were loud even behind a curtain, they often overwhelmed the actors. There were also sound issues with the speller's microphone, which was somewhat distracting as well.
Despite the shows weaker moments, the production is decently done. The cast and crew clearly had a great time pulling it all together. MIT's production was full of heart and a lot of effort was put in to create a fun evening for the audience.