“Spelling Bee” Inspires Laughs and Tears
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We have all been part of our own Putnam County Spelling Bee, though we may not have realized it until the weekend of April 13-15. We may not have spelled the words or participated in the mass hilarity of the show itself, but we certainly connected with the awkward, uncomfortable, spastic and ultimately beautiful moments that come with growing up.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was put on by the Middlebury College Musical Players (MCMP) and was performed and directed entirely by Middlebury students. Olivia Christie ’19 directed, Ronnie Romano ’20 directed music, Sam Boudreau ’19 stage managed and Alex Williamson ’17 directed tech. It ran in the beautiful Town Hall Theatre in the heart of Middlebury. Unlike on-campus venues, Town Hall Theatre seemed to be far more accessible to members outside of the college community, and the audience was composed of a wonderful blend of people old and young.
The diversity of the crowd was also a mark of the power of the play to connect with everyone over the course of its two acts – we all grow up at some point, after all. The first act, which set the scene for the spelling bee and introduced us to the characters, unfolded like chaotic poetry with constant rhyme of humor. Each character revealed their own quirk, and in many scenes, all came together to sing beautiful songs with fluidly disjointed choreography. Much like the beginning of adolescence, the first act showed the characters to be incredibly awkward and passionate and, as many adults may forget, complex.
In fact, actress Emily Cipriani ’19.5, who played the adorable Leaf Coneybear, shrewdly noted that “the humor keeps the pace rolling and warms the audience up to the characters, making later, more serious themes more approachable.”
For example, the first act had songs like “My Friend the Dictionary,” “Pandemonium” and “I’m Not That Smart,” which, though humorous, served to highlight some of the more common trials of adulthood.
“Pandemonium,” which featured speller Chip Tolentino (Michael Koutelous ’20), focused on how life can be incredibly unfair. The cast performed the song twice, and in the reprise, Chip – a favorite to win the bee – spelled his word wrong, becoming the first contestant to get out. Though the song stimulated laughter and the choreography was endearing, for me – and I am sure for other audience members as well – the scene evoked memories of feeling that life could be unfair.
Leaf Coneybear’s “I’m Not That Smart” was easily relatable to anyone who has ever felt inadequately smart in comparison with those around them. According to Cipriani, the song was an example of how Leaf “did not believe in theirself.”
“My Friend the Dictionary,” sung by Olive Ostrovsky (Maria Bobbitt-Chertock ’20), was an ode to all the children who have ever felt alone in their lives. It was a sweet song, featuring disconnected rhymes and simple lines. Yet it held within it the power to leave smiles on our mouths and sadness in our eyes.
The show also featured various adult characters, such as Rona Lisa Peretti (Madeline Ciocci ’20), Doug Panch (David Fine ’17) and comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (Tim Hansen ’18). Though adult, these characters were no less awkward than the spellers and had their own problems. There was also an appearance from Jesus (Amy Conaway ’20), who remarked that “gender is a social construct.”
When the curtains opened again for the second act, the lines between humor and intelligent reflection blurred to the point of invisibility. Koutelous sang about his “Unfortunate Erection” and we laughed heartily, but our hearts felt for him. What is more awkward than an erection in the very public setting of a spelling bee?
“It’s a funny show, but that doesn’t mean that these kids don’t deal with very real and very deep issues that make them so relatable,” said Jess Garner ’19.5 who played Logainne SchwarzandGrubiere. “Olive’s depression and loneliness, Marcy and Logainne’s controlling parents and extreme pressure to succeed, Logainne’s anxiety, Chip’s veneer of confidence, Leaf’s misunderstanding family and ostracization and Barfee’s frustrations with being talked down to are all aspects which really help to make a comedy a more layered and resounding show.”
When Sabine Poux ’20, who played the genius Marcy Park, sang about how she speaks six languages, we saw a smart girl reveal the layers of insecurity and doubts that any hard-working child has thought about at some point: Does everyone think I am boring? Do people think of me as anything more than a smarty-pants?
When Bobbit-Chertock, Miranda Seixas ’20, and Tim Hansen ’18 combined forces to sing “The I Love You Song,” we sat in rapture as the tangled emotions and expectations of family love were simplified into three notes harmonized perfectly into one. No family dynamic is the same, but the song found the right key to express the importance of those dynamics, touching every one of us listening.
When Logainne SchwarzandGrubiere had a meltdown because of the constant pressure put upon her by her two fathers (Christian Schmitt ’19 and Austin Kenny ’19), we remembered the pressure we endure from our parents and life. Hell, I was reminded of the pressures I was going through that day.
However, just like the first act, the emotional scenes were clothed in humor, and for this they were far more enjoyable for us than the scenes we experienced ourselves in years past.
By the end of the play, it was clear that the motley crew of lovable characters had all grown up in a way. Leaf discovered that they were pretty damn smart. William Barfee, played by the hysterical Sean Meagher ’20, discovered that he could be his weird self, spell words without his magic foot and find friendship and love with people as quirky as him. Logainne found her own confidence and blossomed outside of her fathers’ stern instruction. Marcy realized she could lose if she wanted to, even though she could have easily won. Finally, Olive finally found a friend in Barfee, as well as kindness in the form of Panch, who had been rather mean to the kids throughout the bee.
Within the chaos of “Spelling Bee,” the one constant was a smile on the faces of everyone in the audience. Though there were scenes that made us sad, the play’s consistent humor, wonderful acting and beautiful songs never once let us get down on the scenes or the lives they portrayed.
I think it was the ability to keep us all in good spirits that made this show as magical as it was. It reminded us of how hard adolescence could be, but it forced us into realizing just how damn beautiful and fun it was too.
Upon interviewing the cast, it seemed that another reason there was such joy in watching the show was that the cast and crew gelled so well.
“What was great about this show was that the cast just clicked, creatively and emotionally,” said Bobbitt-Chertock. “Everyone helped foster this welcoming, supportive environment, which is a real gem in theatre – an art form that infamously entails a lot of diva-tantrum-throwing.”
“The best thing about this play was the people involved,” Ciocci agreed.
Fine added that the dedication of the directors was crucial to the show’s success.
“Our cast and crew had no weak links at all, and Olivia and Ronnie did absolutely superb jobs as director and music director,” he said. “It was a privilege, and I am very proud of our performances.”
The glowing review from the cast illuminated the final, wonderful point to take from “Spelling Bee”: no matter who we are we all grow up with others, and it is with their unwavering support and presence that we all can find our way safely into adulthoo