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Returning to Awkwardness: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Posted by on Friday, April 14, 2017 in 1010 blog posts, Blog posts.

On Thursday, April 6, Vanderbilt Off-Broadway kicked off a weekend of epic spelling and heartwarming competition in the premiere of their spring musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Eagerly awaiting the start of the show, students, parents, and community members filed into Sarratt Cinema and took their seats as audience members to the actual Putnam County Spelling Bee. A much smaller venue than VOB’s last show Damn Yankees (which took place at Langford Auditorium), Sarratt proved to be the perfect size for the event. Packed to the brims with spectators, the Cinema created a very intimate and realistic space for the bee to occur. Vanderbilt Off-Broadway’s impressive performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee gave the audience more than just an entertaining evening; it offered everyone a chance to step back into childhood and experience the awkward years of middle school one more time.

The show begins with spelling bee host, and former Putnam County Spelling Bee champion, Rona Lisa Peretti (played by Megan Ward) taking the stage. Immediately the audience is transported off Vanderbilt’s campus and dropped in the middle of the Putnam County gymnasium, just in time for the start of the Bee. One by one, the six primary contestants make their way from the back of the Cinema to the stage, as they are introduced by Miss Peretti. But what’s a spelling bee with only six contestants? Four more guest spellers (all of whom were audience members) were welcomed to the stage to take part in the Bee, a unique touch that made the show even more transformative. Once on stage, everyone was joined by the Bee’s co-host, Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Connor Pinson), a middle-aged man that is returning to judge after being absent from the Bee for five years due to an “incident.” Finally, ex-convict Mitch Mahoney (Nick Gehring) enters carrying the American flag and all of the participants join in saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Mahoney serves his required community service hours as the official “Comfort Counselor” to the Bee, comforting each of the eliminated contestants with a hug and a juice box.

Eventually the spellers get to spelling, and as the show progresses, flashbacks, contestant descriptions, and solo performances reveal more and more about each of the contestants’ backgrounds. Each with their own unique personalities and mannerisms, the characters offered the audience a diverse set of kids to connect with. Personally, I saw quirks and traits that I identified with in all of the characters, sending me back to the middle school years I have tried so hard to forget.

Chip Tolentino (Taylor Gutierrez), the winner of the 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, confidently enters wearing his Boy Scout uniform. Rolling off of last year’s victory, Chip does not know what to do when he is eliminated after misspelling a word due to his untimely erection. The painful awkwardness of puberty, exemplified by Chip’s character, is something that we can all identify with, no matter our age or gender.

Leaf Coneybear (Connor Welch), who is at the Bee on a technicality after placing third at his local competition, rides in on his razor scooter, wearing a cape and a red helmet. In his solo performance of “I’m Not That Smart,” the audience learns that he and his siblings are homeschooled by their “free-spirited” parents, and constant ridicule from his siblings has led Leaf to believe that he is not very smart, especially not smart enough to be competing at the Putnam County Spelling Bee. Leaf’s shaky confidence and mistrust in his own abilities reminds the audience of the umbrella of uncertainty that came with middle school. His genuine quirkiness makes him a very lovable character that easily nestles himself in the hearts of the audience members.

Contrastingly, Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre’s (Lindsey Swearingen) confidence, despite her unmistakable lisp, cannot go unnoticed as she takes the mic with the certainty (and two pig tails) that she will spell the word right. The pressure to perform impressed on her by her two gay dads (John Lally and Taylor Gutierrez) resonated well in the hearts of the students in the audience. As students at a school like Vanderbilt, the pressure to excel at everything, school, extracurricular activities, and social relationships, does not go unnoticed. Logainne’s character served as a nice reminder of the importance of letting go, living in the moment, and just being (bee-ing?) yourself.

Next up was Marcy Park (Jessica Powers), the overachieving, over-involved middle school girl that I’m sure many of us connected with. Her need to be the best at everything (sports, music, academics) leads her to be seen as the uptight girl who can’t have any fun. Recognizing this, Park throws the Bee in an act of teenage rebellion, leaving the audience cheering for her letting go of the pressure to be perfect.

Coming in with his “magic foot,” is William Barfee, the obnoxious, overly sensitive kid with the peanut allergy. His overconfidence and constant correction of the judges’ mispronunciation of his name make him into a slightly annoying, but very relatable character. There is always that one kid who has to be right all the time, and someone in the audience found Barfee to be an accurate representation of their middle-school-self. Later in the musical, William develops a crush on Olive and clinches the title of champion of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Finally, Olive Ostrovsky (Arielle Kasnetz) arrives late to the Bee not coming with enough money to pay the entrance fee. Olive’s story is a more sensitive, yet still identifiable, one: her mother is away on a self-exploration in India while her father is always working. Her loneliness and general shyness led her to become best friends with her dictionary, leaving her without the support of real friendship.

In one way or another, all of these characters represent the people we were in middle school. From Chip’s awkward onset of puberty to Marcy’s inspiring act of teenage rebellion, these students remind us all of the confusion and discomfort of being a preteen. There were moments of comedy and solemnity, difficulty and triumph, leaving the audience riding the emotional roller coaster of junior high. While some of the scenes were absolutely cringe-worthy (for instance, as Chip belts about his “Unfortunate Erection”), the musical as a whole left me feeling nostalgic of my own weird and embarrassing moments from nearly six years ago. Given the choice to escape the stressful world of college and spend a night reliving the carefree years of middle school, I’d quickly jump at the opportunity. The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee gave me, and many others, a chance to do just that. Thank you, Vanderbilt Off-Broadway, for yet another unforgettable performance.

Works Cited

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Vanderbilt Off-Broadway. Sarratt Cinema, Nashville, TN. 6 Apr. 2017. Performance.

Rigsbee, Valerie. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Broadway Musical Home – The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Broadway Musical Home, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.

2 Comments on “Returning to Awkwardness: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

This show always leaves the audience simultaneously sentimental and in stitches, and as Erin’s detail pointed out, VOB’s execution was lovely and effective in doing just that. I have a warm place in my heart for Lally and Gutierrez’ portrayal of Logainne’s dads, as well as Swearingen’s comedic yet full of depth portrayal of Logainne. As Erin points out, the pressure that Logainne’s character faces truly highlights the “Race to Nowhere” mentality we as a society have to address within our education system. Marcy’s rebellion builds upon this fierce theme, beautifully delivered by Jessica Powers – and I found myself flashing back to Vanderbilt TED Talks describing the “Overinvolvement Syndrome” which, in many ways, Vanderbilt’s leadership climate promotes. I couldn’t be happier that VOB selected this as a second semester show, as the timing couldn’t have been more perfect as we dance into finals season. Erin hit the nail on the head – “I’m Not That Smart” can stay back in the theater, despite Connor’s stellar performance.

Emma Noyes on April 24th, 2017 at 12:10 am

I agree with the fact that the play reminded me of the different characters their were in my middle school experience and how that preteen experience can shape the lives of adolecents in this time period. Middle school is an often under told story as their are no proms, homecomings, and deep relational heartbreak that may define people’s high school years. Looking at this middle school there’s tremendous pressure to succeed which can be comical because “it’s just a middle school spelling bee” but in reality at every stage of our lives, whatever is happening today is tremendous pressure.

Donovan Sheffield on April 26th, 2017 at 4:20 pm

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