THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE – Music and Lyrics by William Finn; Book by Rachel Sheinkin; Directed by Carter Edward Smith; Musical Direction by Alec Steinhorn; Choreographed by Joyce Cole. Produced by Vintage Theatre (1468 Dayton St, Aurora) through June 9. Tickets available at 303-856-7830 or 

Ah, the power of words. As children, my brothers and I were not allowed curse words. Indeed, I never heard my parents’ curse. As a result, when I heard words from other sources and innocently used them myself, I often got my mouth washed out with soap. In retaliation, we discovered that it wasn’t so much the word as it was in how you said it. We developed our own private set of “almost” curse words. My favorite was “Phenobarbital” (a prescription medicine). With just the right inflection, it can sound like “Damn it all.” Deluded my parents for a little while, at least. 

So is it any wonder that a play about words and their impact on people should delight. This group of six actors reenacting the joy of competition, the chance for recognition, the hope of pleasing the adults in their lives, and the fear of failure strike chords of memory in everyone watching. We’ve all gone through some test of our mettle at some point in our lives, whether it be in a sports arena, a classroom, a performing space, or . . . a spelling bee. 

While ostensibly a simple plot – who wins? – it becomes about much more in terms of personal growth for these six participants. William Barfee (Barfay, if you please!) (Grant Bowman) has convinced himself that his “magic foot” technique of spelling will see him through. But he learns that he has the power to spell and achieve without the use of any kind of magic. Olive Ostrovsky (Ava Arangua Francis) – who has vocal chops that belie her tiny structure – has seemingly lost her parents to spiritual searching and work demands. She displays a heart that has room for everyone, even her competitors. Logainne Schwartz and Grubenierre (Lily Horst) finds her own space in her world dominated by two fathers with different parenting skills – both of which place incredible pressure to succeed on her. Her moral compass is stronger than both her adult models. Leaf Coneybear (Cal Meakins) is a free spirit from a hippy family who fell into the Bee through a fluke but delights that he’s there at all. Marcie Parks (Charlotte Quinn) is an over-achiever who is a little bit tired and bored with it all until she discovers, during the middle of a word, that achieving or not is really up to her. Chip Tolentino (Andrew Wilson, Jr.) was the winner of the 24th Annual and believes he will skate to a win again, only to be betrayed by his developing puberty. Watching this talented group of faux middle-schoolers navigate their early life challenges allows the audience to remember how they negotiated their own tribulations and eventually thrived. 

Even the adults playing the adults at the Bee are not without personal baggage. Anna Hardcastle plays Rona Lisa Perretti, the organizer of the Spelling Bee and a former winner herself. Basking in the glory of a 20-year-old triumph, she provides a sympathetic moderator to the current group of competitors. Luke Rahmsdorff-Terry returns to the Vintage Stage to play Vice Principal Panch who is in “a better place” since his last attempt at participation as the word-reader in a Bee. It is his job to supply the spellers with the words, their definitions, the origins and use the word in a sentence. Laughs abound at Luke’s deadpan delivery of the obscure words and their use in ridiculous sentences. In what could be considered a “throw-away” part, Justin Milner shines as Mitch Mahoney, a “comfort counselor” handing out juice boxes and little bracelets that say “Goodbye” to the departing losers. His character as a man on probation doing community service at the Bee gives him a genuine sense of sympathy for the ones who must walk off stage. His strong voice contributed to two of the sweeter songs in the show – a duet with Logainne (“Woe is Me”) and a song as Olive’s Dad (“The I Love You Song”) as well as his own declaration in “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.” 

A stripped-down cast gives several the opportunity to slide in and out of various smaller roles such as Olive’s Mom and Dad and Logainne’s two warring Dads, displaying the versatility of these actors. The clever costuming of Susan Rahmsdorff-Terry allowed these to be smoothly accomplished with no break in the pace of the production. Stripped down but authentic was also reflected in the set design by Kortney Hansen. A realistic high school gym is recreated complete with bleachers and an auditorium-like stage. The live five piece band led by Alec Steinhorn provided support for the performers invisibly.  

Maybe your own early school memories weren’t so good. Maybe it would make you feel better about your own dilemmas to learn that maybe you didn’t have it so bad after all. Maybe seeing young people succeed would bring you joy. Bring your “maybe’s” to Vintage and laugh at them for a couple of hours. 

A WOW factor of 8.50!! 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *