10 yellow chairs on a stage, “Putnam Optometrist” written in squiggly handwriting on a purple paper attached to a table, a basketball hoop hanging from the back wall, audience members filing into the auditorium, excitedly talking in hushed tones. And for good reason – The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is about to begin.
One of the main components that makes this production different from past Franklin High School (FHS) plays is the audience participation. Four audience members are invited to participate in the bee as spellers each performance: mainly FHS staff, students, and some parents. Liam Pearson was an audience participant on opening night, Mar. 4. He didn’t know quite what he was getting into before the play, but when he stepped on the stage he assumed the role of another speller in the bee. The audience participants were called up to the microphone at different points during Act I, where they were asked to spell words ranging from “cow” to “lysergic acid diethylamide.” One by one, the audience members were eliminated and sung off by the cast in the recurring “Goodbye” song. Pearson was the last audience member in his show to be eliminated, and so received a longer goodbye in “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.”
“I didn’t expect them to sing a full song to me, all the other volunteers who were eliminated before me just got a short little song,” remarked Pearson. Overall, he had a great experience. “I’m good friends with all the spellers [who were performing that night] so it was super cool to be up there with them and interact with their characters. It was also fun to spell the words and be a part of this show they had all been looking forward to and talking about for so long.”
Sophia Goble, who played Marcy Park in the consonant cast, spoke about this unique component of Spelling Bee.
“Something that is cool and unique about this show is how it breaks the Fourth Wall.” The Fourth Wall is the invisible barrier separating the audience from the cast, but Spelling Bee “breaks” that barrier down through audience participation, which leads the audience to feel as though they are a part of the bee, which is a unique and exciting experience. “[A typical play] is like watching TV, but in this play, there is high audience interaction, and [lots of] improv. So it is very much like a conversation musical,” Goble says.
Spelling Bee first opened on Broadway in 2005. It was based on a book by Rebecca Sheinkin, who won a Tony Award in 2005 for her writing. That year, the musical was additionally nominated for six Tony Awards, and won two: Best Book of a Musical and Best Performance of a Featured Actor in a Musical. The FHS production added a few unique twists to the play, but in general, the story is more or less the same. The special component of a school production is seeing your classmates display their talents and take the spotlight in a non-academic setting.
Doug Panch (played by Adrian Wilkinson), is the word pronouncer who claims the role after the first pronouncer refuses to get vaccinated. That’s another thing about this production – there are multiple instances where the cast mentions the pandemic and COVID-19, which makes the play feel more current than the Broadway version from 2005. Panch provides the audience and spellers alike with witty definitions and sentence applications throughout the show.
“S-Y-Z-Y-G-Y. Syzygy,” declares Rona Lisa Peretti. She’s played by Maia Kleinberg and Emilia Valencia in the FHS production and dons a bright red suit jacket and a slicked back low bun. She is the driving force behind the bee, having been a former champion herself, and her excitement for the situation is prevalent in the show, especially in her recurring song “Favorite Moment of The Bee.” Her kindness and care towards the children as well as her firmness around the rules of the bee make her the glue that holds the whole production together.
Meg Mahoney (played by Freya Maher and Mara Babasin) is the “comfort counselor” for the group of anxious young spellers. She’s there to serve her community service hours, but ends up taking on a role much more important than just escorting weeping children off the stage and handing out juice boxes. When the last audience participant is eliminated, she serenades them with “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.” Throughout the show she grows a fondness for the children, hoping to teach them valuable lessons about life and loss. At the end of the play it is revealed her life’s purpose is to comfort losers of future spelling bees.
Charlito “Chip” Tolentino (played by Twylo Landey and Brian Gardner) is a boy scout and the defending champ of the 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He returns as a contender to win it all, but unfortunately becomes distracted by Leaf’s sister Marigold who is sitting in the audience, and he stumbles on the word “tittup.” Meg escorts him offstage, but he returns at the beginning of Act II to distribute candy to the audience and belt “My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament),” a dramatic and harrowing reflection of who—or what—is to blame for his shortcoming.
Marcy Park (played by Anna Gunderson and Sophia Goble) is a veteran speller, having placed 9th in the previous year’s national bee. She is highly accomplished in many spheres, and makes it known in “I Speak Six Languages.” However, her overachiever tendencies and perfectionism come to a boil in Act II as she begins to grapple with the choice between being all business and not living up to expectations. She is given the word “camouflage” and exclaims “Oh Jesus—can’t you come up with a harder word than that?” To her surprise, Jesus (Bela Aveline) skateboards onstage, and tells her that he would still love her if she won or lost the bee—but it’s not really the type of thing he cares about. She deliberately botches the word, shedding her perfect all business persona for a happier mindset.
Leaf Coneybear (played by Max Weaver and Evan Lewis) qualified for the bee by chance—he was second runner-up in his district, but the first and second place finalists both had to attend a Bat Mitzvah. He comes from a large family and makes his own clothes. In “I’m Not That Smart,” he explains how he is, in fact, not that smart, but makes it relatively far in the bee due to his “spelling trances” in which he seems to be possessed by an outside force, prompting him to spell the word correctly.
Logainne “Schwartzy” Schwartzandgrubenierre (played by Ava Penberthy and Delia Graham) is the youngest competitor in the bee. She’s an outspoken advocate for lowering the voting age to 10 and getting vaccinated, and tutors students much older than her. She has a lisp, but a loud voice and personality. She is driven to win by both her own drive for success and her two dads, Carl and Dan (Liam Rahm and Logan Markwell). Carl puts a large amount of pressure on Logainne, even going so far as to spill soda in attempts to sabotage Logainne’s competition, William Barfée. She is in the final three when, after an upsetting outburst from her dad and Panch, she misspells the word “vug” and is eliminated from the competition.
William Morris Barfée (played by Henry Takiguchi and Oliver River Satalich) is a Putnam County finalist from the previous year, having been eliminated due to difficulties with his peanut allergy. His unfortunate last name leads the judges to pronounce his name “Barf-ee” every time he is called to the mic, which he counters with “it’s Barf-AY,” with increasing frustration. His coveted method of spelling is his “Magic Foot” but eventually learns he can still spell without it. He has only one working nostril and an irritable temper, but is motivated by his drive to win, and at the end of the show, gains a liking towards Olive. He debates botching his last word so she can win, but with her encouragement, he spells his word correctly and wins the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Olive Ostrovsky (played by Amelia Dusevoir and Crea Sisco) is a newcomer to the world of competitive spelling. Her mother is in an ashram in India, and her father is still at work, per usual. She spends much of the bee fretting about if her father will ever come, or how she will pay the $25 entry fee. Nevertheless, she makes it to the final two, where she faces off against William Barfée; the two eventually develop crushes on each other throughout the show. She is asked to spell the word “chimerical” meaning “highly unrealistic, wildly fanciful,” which sets off “The I Love You Song,” a powerful number featuring Olive and her parents (Vetiver Long and Evan Lewis play her father, the actress who plays Rona Lisa Peretti plays her mother), symbolizing that her parents saying “I love you” and being there for her is highly unrealistic and wildly fanciful (chimerical). She finishes the bee second to William, but is overjoyed to have been a part of the bee and to have made a strong connection with him.
Franklin has put on many great plays in past years, but The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was special as it was a return to in-person theater. The FHS arts department worked tirelessly to bring together talented students in a whimsical and hilarious production. Countless individuals used their talents to create the musical aside from the actors themselves, from people who worked on costumes and makeup, set design/production, lights and sound, curtains, students in the band, and many others.
For all, collaborating on a project was a much-missed experience that the pandemic took away. Hazel True, who was Head of Lights for the production, said that it was “fantastic” to get to work and be in the theater again. “Getting to see a show come together after so long was one of the best things about being in person. I am so glad my final show could happen in person.” For them, a highlight was being able to work with their friends. “This year, most of my friends are involved in theater, so it was really nice!” And that seems to be a trend for many involved. Isolation due to the pandemic made these feelings of connection so much more important when life slowly returned in-person. “Coming back from a pandemic really made me realize how much I missed live theater and how much this disease sucks. It’s been so special and amazing that I get to be in a show with people who have become my absolute favorite people,” reiterates Amelia Dusevoir, who played Olive Ostrovsky in the vowel cast. “It’s not the rehearsing and the show I’m going to remember, but all the funny little laughs we had.”