Restaurant. That was the word that finally did me in at my schoolwide spelling bee in fifth-grade. I could have sworn that stupid “u” was in the final syllable. Still, every time I think about that bee, a strange feeling of anxiety sweeps over me.
That’s the same anxiety I felt at Reno Little Theater as recordings of real Scripps National Spelling Bee winners from years past primed audience members for the opening night performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Though, at heart, the show is a comedy, sprinkled throughout are doses of adolescent angst that keep it from veering into pure silliness.
The spelling bee is a unique kind of torture that American schools perform on young people, and this musical—conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn—perfectly captures the essence of a bee. We tend to view spelling-bee champions in much the same way we observe bizarre anomalies in museums: with a mixture of fascination, awe, fright and even pity. As for the participants themselves, the thrill of victory and agony of defeat are exacerbated by the pains of puberty, making the memories even more vivid and haunting.
The show opens on a school gymnasium in Putnam County (state unknown), where Rona Lisa Peretti (Cori Lynne Cooper)—former spelling bee champ, current real estate agent and host of the bee—is ready to welcome her co-host, vice principal Douglas Panch (John Frederick). They’re ready to welcome their 10 student competitors—six actors and four willing volunteers from the audience—to the 25th annual county spelling bee.
Our motley crew of spellers includes Logainne SchwartzeandGrubenierre (Tobie Barton), a woke elementary student, raised by uber-competitive gay dads, with a lisp; Leaf Coneybear (Ryan Costello), an oddball with volume-control problems who can only spell through his puppet; Marcy Park (Bernadette Garcia), an overachiever suffering under the weight of her parents’ massive expectations; William Barfée (Ryan Kelly)—don’t call him “Barfy,” it’s Bar-fay—a know-it-all with a sinus condition and a habit of writing words on the floor with his “magic foot” before spelling them aloud; Chip Tolentino (Jared Lively), a not-so-innocent Boy Scout whose pubescent arousal becomes too difficult to hide; and Olive Ostrovsky (Georgia McKnight), a shy preteen whose heart is broken by her parents’ noticeable absence. Waiting in the wings is Mitch Mahoney (Edison Garcia), an ex-con fulfilling his community service by comforting losing spellers with juice boxes while escorting them out.
Also onstage are those four aforementioned audience members, who have volunteered to spell and must now unwittingly compete in the first act (meaning that every show truly will be unique). This makes for comic gold when the volunteers have the opportunity to spell words and inquire as to words’ origins, definitions and uses in sentences.
The story is strung together with Finn’s musical numbers, which, despite being lyrically funny, defy one’s ability to grasp a memorable tune. Though several actors are competent singers—Kelly is a standout in every sense of the word, though McKnight and Cooper are quite strong as well—others left me wondering whether they were trying to sing off key to convey puberty or simply couldn’t hit the notes. Compounding the problem were some audio issues that made many lines, spoken and sung, impossible to hear.
Also somewhat frustrating are Miss SchwartzeandGrubenierre’s occasional political rants, which could have been cute and precocious in an elementary student, but instead feel heavy-handed and preachy—out of place for the setting and story.
Nonetheless, there are extraordinary moments of comedy—Costello and Lively are incredibly talented in this arena—and McKnight’s irresistible smile and touching song to Olive’s absentee parents are high points.
Director Stacey Spain has done a wonderful job of bringing these characters to life and staging scenes in a way that fully immerses the audience in the competition and evokes our sympathies; I often felt as if I were at the bee rather than watching a play.
Which is fine as long, as I don’t have to spell restaurant.
Reno Little Theater’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is performed at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Aug. 7, at 147 E. Pueblo St. Tickets are $30, with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 775-813-8900, or visit renolittletheater.org.