As I stepped into the lobby of the Auditorium Theatre on Sunday afternoon, my ears were bombarded with the loud chatter of hundreds of people waiting to see the Tony Award-winning musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” come to life. As a New York City native, I was very excited to see the production because the atmosphere already reminded me of the honking taxicabs, the flashing advertisements and that general Broadway spirit.
When I stepped into the beautiful theater, the first thing I noticed was the open set. There was no curtain in view but rather a spinning platform, a standing microphone, a table and a banner with the name of the musical. It was the first sign that the wall between the actors and the audience would most likely be crossed.
The musical’s ingenious nature became apparent in its opening moments, when a very cheerful, smiling woman walked through the audience and onto the stage, candidly introducing herself as Rosa Lisa Peretti, both a former winner of the Spelling Bee and its returning host. As vice principal of the school Douglas Panch, who would also be serving as the judge, stepped out, Peretti quipped, “Our usual word pronouncer, Hillary Clinton, couldn’t be here. But when she called to cancel, she got all choked up.”
The six primary contestants came on to the stage-followed by three contestants that had been chosen from the audience before the show-and sat on the bleacher-type platform. Peretti explained the rules of the contest, and over the course of the following 90 minutes, each primary character dealt with each new word challenge in unique ways that reflected his or her exceptional personality (and the selected audience members tried to follow suit). In the quest for the gold trophy, hilarious results, often in the form of clever one-liners, ensued.
The judges presented amusing words; when one contestant asked Panch to give a definition for “Mexicans,” he answered, “American slang word for anyone from Cuba, Peru, Dominican Republic or South America in general.” The example sentence for “palestra” was from Euripides: “What happens in the palestra stays in the palestra.” The judges poked fun at the contestants as they approached the microphone and, one by one, the “fake” contestants were eliminated with impossible words such as “xerophthalmiology” as the audience got to know the other characters.
Marcy Park was the perfectionist who rarely showed much emotion but soon revealed that behind her unruffled faade was a troubled girl who was not allowed to cry and who frequently hid in the bathroom cabinet. Chip Tolentino, a passionate Boy Scout, revealed his affections toward Marcy at the very beginning of the story and, although she felt nothing of the sort, he was not able to control his “Unfortunate Erection.” His distraction cost him the competition (but provided the audience with a very entertaining song). Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the very outspoken child of two gay (and overbearing) men, had a prominent lisp and took every opportunity to make known her opinions. “This bee is about as exciting as Barack Obama winning the South Carolina primaries,” she asserted at one point, going on to elicit raucous laughter from the audience with other political comments.
The comic relief in an already comical cast, Leaf Coneybear was only in the competition because the actual winner of the last competition was unavailable; his trademark song was appropriately “I’m Not That Smart.” William Barfe was the epitome of a geek – portly, allergic to peanuts, wearing thick glasses, suspenders and only one working nostril, he considered it necessary to spell out on the floor, with his “magic foot,” whatever word the judges gave him. Over the course of the story, he developed a crush on Olive Ostrovsky, a shy and likeable girl who had to talk into her hand before spelling any word and constantly voiced her worries over her father being too busy and her mother going off to India on a spiritual quest.
The storyline was simple, interspersed with flashbacks and relevant scenes from the characters’ lives, and when everything came together, every one of them began to discover who they really were and what really mattered in their lives. During one particularly poignant song, Olive transported herself to India and realized that her parents really did love her, even if they weren’t always there for her. Marcy had a spiritual epiphany – in the form of a vision of Jesus – and realized that maybe winning wasn’t everything. The other four contestants made strides of their own, leading to very surprising results and an unexpected winner.
By poking lighthearted fun at homosexuality, parental pressure, politics, religion, and even the side effects of puberty in males, among other things, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” like any good musical comedy, became a microcosm of the world, a perfect blend of various stereotypes and the issues that accompany them.
There may not have been any honking taxis or flashing lights outside, but there was certainly side-splitting laughter inside, and when the actors gave their final bow, there was a long and enthusiastic round of applause from the audience. And in the end, that’s what a Broadway musical is all about. “Spelling Bee” was a pleasure and joy to watch.
Rengifo is a member of the class of 2011.