Charming, engaging and laced with a whole lotta awkward, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre allows the chance to look back at the junior high years from a different — and much funnier — perspective.
Although dealing with a group of competitive youngsters can be challenging, the glue that keeps the bee together is Rona Lisa Peretti (Andi Watson), the ladylike, peppy but nostalgic spelling bee announcer who encourages every child while reminiscing on her own champion days. Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Scott McLean Harrison) obviously struggles to be taken seriously, but the character’s delivery of improvised lines and hilariously crafted one-liners is not to be missed.
Most of the bee’s participants are outcasts at their own schools but manage to form relationships of some sort at the competition. But since the production relies heavily on improv, the musical gets added hilarity when volunteer audience members join the cast — some spelling words as simple as “cow,” and others spelling more difficult terms I wouldn’t dare attempt in front of a live audience.
Character Olive Ostrovsky (Conly Basham), luckily, comes into the bee with her best friend, the dictionary, which she praises in her properly titled introduction, “My Friend, the Dictionary.” Unfortunately, Olive struggles with her parents’ absence during this high-pressure time. But for Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, her source of pressure is her parents, two dads who have diligently trained her to take home the first-place prize.
Since Chip Tolentino took home last year’s prize, he’s coming into this year’s bee pretty confidently. But as Chip, um, matures, he becomes distracted, leading the cast into the song “Pandemonium,” a movement-filled representation of his distress.
The well-meaning but ever-so-sidetracked Leaf Coneybear provides audiences with a key moment of empathy with his saddening “I’m Not That Smart,” and Marcy Park insists she’s not all business with her solo, “I Speak Six Languages.”
Each student is on his or her own journey of self-discovery through the bee, but something in particular about William Morris Barfee — arguably the most awkward character — is uniquely telling, as the audience learns about the source of his unfriendly behavior.
Through all the tear-jerkng moments and gleeful dance numbers across the stage, Spelling Bee is a show that keeps on giving. After all, how often does The Rep hand out juice boxes and Google Play gift cards (which are awarded by none other than comfort counselor and parolee Mitch Mahoney, played by Correy West)?
The Tony Award-winning production, which originally premiered 10 years ago, is still as culture current and modern day as ever. So go ahead, give Spelling Bee — and even spelling — a shot. At least you’re not the junior high kid this time around.