Rona Lisa Peretti approaches the microphone, intimidating and confident. Her black pumps clack against the ground, coming to an abrupt halt when a voice from above commands: “Ms. Peretti, please spell syzygy.” She spells the word with excellent precision.
The lighting shifts, and we return to the present. Peretti, the 3rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Champion, has returned, and the light in her eyes shines upon each of the spellers as they enter in anticipation of this year’s competition. Gabrielle Poisson ’21 stars as the moderator in a production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” It becomes clear that Peretti is the main driving force of the narrative, providing thorough introductions to each participant and a series of passionate interludes that help prompt the progression of the Bee.
Peretti is accompanied by two additional administrators, including co-moderator and vice principal, Douglas Panch (Liam Elkind ’21) as well as Mitch Mahoney (Kira Sze ’21), a comfort counselor and ex-convict performing community service at the Bee. At times, I find myself unable to tell if the moderators are simply improvising; the natural comedy that Poisson and Elkind build in their roles as administrators and “adult figures” at the Bee is refreshing and contributes to a lighthearted frame for the play.
Perhaps most touching in ways one would not expect is Sze’s portrayal of Mahoney, who we find learning how to comfort ejected students after reconciling with her own personal failures. In a touching interlude of her own, she laments aloud: “I want to tell them that words don’t matter, but they do.”
One underdeveloped element of the script is the captivating understory of Panch. Although this is a play about adolescent students, Elkind’s portrayal of a clearly distraught man with a history of unclear incidents and a bad temper is extremely enjoyable, and I would argue matches that of Poisson’s excellently. I was hoping to hear more about Panch’s uncertainty about his role at the Bee and obvious feelings of affection for Peretti.
As expected, the spellers are no short of remarkable, and the audience gets to know each one individually — at some point throughout the play, each character breaks the flow to sing their own Broadway-esque musical number, appearing to both stop and command time. These departures from the action of the Bee lend a newfound maturity, and at times vulnerability, to each character that contrasts the way they present themselves “onstage.”
The spellers themselves are of adolescent age, with the youngest being nine-year-old elementary school student Logainne Schwartzandgrunenierre (Brianna Jean ’22), a blossoming social activist who once petitioned to lower the minimum voting age to 10 years old.
The cast is made up of almost entirely first-year and sophomore students, led by the powerful director-musical director duo of Gabrielle Colangelo ’21 and Griffin Strout ’21. The production’s delicate musical foundation coupled with choreography by Gabrielle Niederhoffer ’22 is captivating all on its own, employing elaborate harmonies, fun dance numbers and a kick line sequence that will make your heart soar. Colangelo is to praise for the fantastic character development and chemistry showcased between the actors.
The audience is at home within this little world, settling in for much more than a standard day at the Bee. The environment only serves to contribute to this larger framework; Pauli Murray’s Lighten Theater, where “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs Thursday through Saturday, is cozy and intimate with high ceilings and sleek, modern angles. A line of seats comprises a U-shape around the “stage,” providing no separation between the Bee and its spectators. A single microphone stand is a consistent set piece that sits only a few feet away from audience members, assisting with the interactive nature of the performance.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” explores academia, adolescence and the unexpected friendships that form under pressure. The bond that develops quickly between William Barfee (Jake Moses ’21), the boy with a magic foot and a peanut allergy, and newcomer Olive Ostrovsky (Naomi Goodheart ’22) is both a surprise and a wholesome addition to the plot.
There is an underlying hope that simmers in the hearts of many of the spellers, which is the desire to succeed and be accepted by the parental figures in their lives. Logainne, Olive and the peculiar yet endearing Leaf Coneybear (Mitchell Harpenau ’22) all reflect on their troubling relationships with loved ones and the pressures that the Bee puts on them to appear and be successful. Jean, Goodheart and Harpenau convey this inner conflict with a yearning that is both honest and heartwarming.
Beyond familial motivations and the absence of supportive parental figures, I found the perspective of these young spellers to be overwhelmingly relatable. The character of Marcy Park, played by Madi Cupp-Enyard ’20 is eager and “always business.” She speaks six languages, is an all-American hockey player, plays multiple instruments and sleeps only three hours a night. While Park is dramatic and impressive, her exhaustion is obvious. Chip Tolentino, played by Noah Parnes ’21, is the returning champion of the 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but his attempt at defending his title is complicated by puberty and therefore his forced reconciliation with a harsh descent from a high peak.
Watching “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” it was impossible for me to disconnect these feelings of ambition, determination and imposter syndrome from my own experiences as a Yale student. At the same time, however, it was even harder to avoid smiling and reminiscing in the goofy youthfulness of the spellers. These logophiles will capture your heart; do not take them for granted.
Alexus Coney | firstname.lastname@example.org .
Clarification: A previous version of this article referred to Griffin Strout ’21 as the orchestrator of the production. In fact, he is the musical director.