Your Word Is "Awesome"
by James Hess
The latest play to light up Florissant Valley’s stage, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, finished its two weekend run at the Terry M. Fisher Theatre on April 20, 2013. The way I see it, it is not just a musical story of children’s desire to win, but of several other aspects of life. It is a story of adolescence, dark humor, and social problems along with family struggles as well. All these are humorously lit up through song and jokes throughout.
The story centers on a group of adolescents in middle school who all vary greatly in personality and background. The children (portrayed by adults) can be described as equally quirky, but in different ways. The spellers include Leaf Coneybear, an eccentric son of hippies who makes his own clothes, Marcy Park: an Asian-American overzealous perfectionist, William Barfee (pronounced bar-fay): a quintessential nerd who requires a visual of a word with his “magic foot” before spelling it, along with the Logianne Schwartzandgrubenniere: an accomplished young girl who speaks with an exaggerated lisp. The adults judging them include 2 administrators whose quirkiness get laughs from the audience throughout, along with a passionate, street-talking guidance counselor whose demeanor can be compared to any one of the Wayans Brothers. The music has a basic sound amidst a grand piano with a harpsichord accompaniment, but the lyrics connect to adult situations and carry out in a literal sense as the singer would speak it; not in rhyme or verse (parallel to the style of “Rent”).
The music within “Spelling Bee” illustrates many adult themes with the two songs I find most interesting: “I’m Not that Smart” and “My Unfortunate Erection”. In the “I’m Not That
Smart” sequence, the character Leaf Coneybear (played by Robert Hanson) sings about being ostracized for his eccentricity and his low intelligence level. He panics being asked to spell an unfamiliar word and goes into a reminiscent song, where he literally describes his feeling of inferiority. His peers and his siblings riddle him with a “dumb kid!” taunt. His gentle personality is a gift as it brings out a charismatic character in him, but adds shame to his “aggressive family”. His goofy demeanor along with his love for making his own clothing is illustrated in this silly sequence. “Unfortunate Erection” musically glorifies the character Chip Tolentino’s (played by Joe Guccione) problem with getting an erection when having to speak on stage and also hiding it from a girl he has a crush on (who ironically is Leaf Coneybear’s sister, Marigold). Chip carries out a big-band style ballad lamenting his erectile problem;: distracting it from himself by throwing candy out to the audience. This is also one of the sequences where the actors interact with the audience, as he throws out an assortment of candy from Smarties to Heath Bars.
The most intriguing thing I found about this production is its style of humor with references to adult situations contradicting the middle school setting. Every minute is filled with comical hijinks, as the spellers not only add goofiness to spelling their words, but also illustrate their backgrounds with zany flashbacks, along with moments of inner thoughts from some of the characters. A couple of very peculiar flashback occurs as Logainne (Jacqueline Daniel-Bolden) thinks how the hard effort she puts into her academic success is plagued by the arguments of same-sex couple guardians. Something not often shown in productions is bits that reflect life among homosexual couples struggling to raise an [adopted] daughter. A scene of inner thought that struck me in both the mind and the funny-bone is a “Jesus” sequence in which the character Marcy Park (Heidi Pennington) prays to Jesus for help with a super confusing word and Jesus Christ, played by the same actor as street-talking Counselor Mahoney (Richard Ross), comes down and speaks to her. She asks him for a better word but is assured by the Lord that it does not make a major difference to him if she wins or loses. Rarely do you see scenes like this in plays, especially if they are about children (with today’s educational laws against religion).
So with its references to adult humor, stages of puberty, academic/social standing amongst adolescents, along with zany scenes of flashbacks and inner thoughts, “Spelling Bee” makes a good example of a display of the antics and eccentricities of children coming of age. A play like this stands out as one that can connect to all people, adolescents and adults alike, and instill reminiscence of their own childhoods and of the funny antics we all engaged in. With all these things mixing together in one production, I give “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” two words to describe it: I-R-O-N-I-C and H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S.