A middle-school spelling bee is the backdrop for a bittersweet journey of self-discovery in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” presented by the Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department. Premiering on Broadway in 2005, the musical comedy is based on Rebecca Feldman’s improvisational play, “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E.” The Tony Award-winning musical features music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss.
Former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Kathryn Curran) is the passionate moderator for the Putnam County Spelling Bee Regional Finals. The contest judge is Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Jacob Corsaro), whose romantic interest in Rona is not reciprocated.
The six eccentric student competitors include easily distracted Leaf Coneybear (Garrett Lamoureux), high-strung Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Tori Waner) and overachiever Marcy Park (Jennifer McClinton). Also competing are competitive spelling newcomer Olive Ostrovsky (Emily Kluger), last year’s champion Chip Tolentino (Daniel Cook), and previous finalist William Barfée (Jacob Keswick).
Through upbeat musical numbers, the precocious rivals tackle familiar adolescent issues such as puberty, peer pressure and overbearing parents as they compete for the coveted prize.
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Providing contest assistance is Mitch Mahoney (Erika Cospin) who is completing community service. In a comical sequence, Jesus Christ (Joshua Mueller) visits Marcy as she questions her competitive drive.
Causing additional stress are Logainne’s domineering dads – Dan Schwartz (Antonio Mata) and Carl Grubienierre (Matthew Jones) – plus Olive’s inattentive parents (Annika Borg-Sundstrom and Ethan Kusters) and Leaf’s disappointed mom (Kat Fogel), dad (Connor Bay) and sister (Alex Holmes).
Three audience members are picked before each performance to join the students in the spelling bee.
Ably directed by Cal Poly theater professor Heidi Nees, with the help of musical director Lacey McNamara and choreographer Christy Chand, “Spelling Bee” uses humorous and high-energy performances to artfully explore the triumphs and tribulations of the student opponents.
The enthusiastic ensemble does a terrific job creating memorable characters. Lamoureux is hysterical as the happy-go-lucky contender who is trying to prove to his parents that he is smart. Keswick plays the nerdy challenger with great defiance, and Kluger soars with a soothing voice as the naïve Olive.
Cook, Waner and McClinton also contribute lively and funny performances playing spelling bee participants. And Curran and Corsaro are thoroughly entertaining as the animated moderator and frustrated judge.
Scenic designer Al Schnupp uses a simple bleacher, standing microphone and judge’s table to replicate the Putnam Valley Middle School gymnasium. Signs of past contest winners are hung on the stage curtains. Costume designer Emily Brehm’s colorful and quirky outfits match the personalities of each character.
Also on the crew are stage manager Garrett Cheng and lighting designer and technical director Clint Bryson.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” teaches audiences a surprising lesson: Believing in your own self-worth beats winning a competition every time.