The cold and snow got you down? Then a trip to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Henry Hayman Theatre on the University of Pittsburgh campus just might help with your winter doldrums.
Set at the Putnam County Middle School, the 25th annual spelling bee is complete with a quirky cast of characters on either side of the microphone. Word pronouncer Douglas Panch returns to the Bee after a long hiatus due to a mysterious incident. Grade schooler William Barfée spells words with his feet. There is an ex-con who serves as a “comfort counselor” to help troubled students. Throw in a speller who wears a cape and goes into a trance when spelling, a couple of gifted kids, some shy kids, the janitor, absent parents and a dim bulb or two and you have a recipe for, well, a typical spelling bee.
Through the early rounds, we learn how each of the students has made it to the finals; some due to their spelling skill and some due to dumb luck. As the words become multisyllabic, and the pressure mounts tensions rise. After all, what could possibly go wrong at a spelling bee?
There are a few things you should know. Prior to the show’s start, several audience members are selected as guest spellers. On preview night, they were quite funny. There is a new addition to the show and as best as I can figure, only this Pitt production has a mascot. The Putnam County Middle School’s mascot is a mermaid! Who knew? She(?) is played swimmingly and silently by pharmacy major David Steffes. I can’t explain it, but he’s funny and it works. There are some other alterations to the original casting to accommodate available talent.
Currently, the University’s Theatre Arts program is in the midst of a rebuilding phase. This season and the selection of Spelling Bee reflect an increased emphasis on musical theatre. Not unexpected from a program in the rebuilding phase with a mostly undergraduate cast from a variety of majors and interests is an unevenness in vocal, dance and acting skills.
Director Robert Frankenberry’s direction brings out the stereotypical perceptions of what each character should be like without creating empathy for the difficulties of growing up as a teenager.
A couple of standout performances s are the Vice Principal, Doug Panch, played with a perfect sense of lust, leering and sick humor by MFA candidate Jose´ Perez IV. Corey Forman shows his comedic skills as the cape wearing, possibly autistic, definitely odd Leaf Coneybear. Rachaelmae Pulliam is delightful as the snot-nosed William Barfee, the boy who spells with his feet. Lauryn Morgan Thomas nails the overly studious, Catholic schoolgirl Marcy Park. I would have liked Fenice Thompson’s Mitch the “comfort counselor” to be just a bit more menacing in counterpoint to the character’s title.
The Henry Heymann theatre is an intimate three-quarter thrust space. The Set Designer Laura Velenti has perfectly recreated a school gym down to the team banners and mandatory metal screen over the glass clock cover. There is nice paintwork on the multi-hued ceramic brick back wall and the wooden floor. Megan Bresser’s Lighting Design takes advantage of the flashbacks for some lighting fun. Three-quarter round staging in a theatre with low ceilings is tough to light creatively while keeping the light out of the audience’s eyes and still letting everyone see the actors. Nice job. Costumes by Minjee Kasckow captured the unique nature of the characters that inhabited them.
Those of you who have read my reviews know I’m a stickler for good sound design, particularly musicals in intimate venues. Zach Beatty-Brown’s sound design and its execution was exemplary in that it was subtle and filled in audibility where needed. A very nice touch was the change in the sound when actors approached the stand microphone to spell their words and Panch as he was pronouncing into his desk microphone
I personally like reviewing shows staged in three-quarter thrust venues. It gives me a chance to watch the audience, see how they react, look at how they are engaged and their facial expressions. Tonight’s audience of mostly college students laughed and enjoyed the performance.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays at the Henry Heymann Theatre on the Pitt campus, now through the 19th, with Sunday matinees. For tickets and more information, click here.
A special thanks to the University of Pittsburgh, Theatre Arts Department for the complimentary tickets to the show. Photos courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Stages.