It might seem like the distant past now, but it wasn’t all that long ago when our lives revolved around things like who won the district spelling bee. Eastern Michigan University’s spring show “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” reminds us of the days of bees and book fairs and just how important those things were to our adolescence.
The play revolves around boy scout Chip Tolentino (Maxim Hunt), the androgynous product of two gay dads Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Ashley Kerby), the awkward home-schooled kid Leaf Coneybear (Alex Justice), the perfect Marcy Park (Esther Jentzen), stereotypical nerd William Barfee (Nathan Corliss) and the lonely Olive Ostrovsky (Stephanie VanAlstine) as they strive for the top prize in the district and for a chance to compete at the national bee in Washington.
Also tossed into the mix are the grown ups: former bee champ Rona Lisa Peretti (Kelley Stonebraker), the nearly terrifying parolee councilor Mitchell Mahoney (Anthony Petrucci) and the neurotic vice principal Douglas Panch (Daniel Millhouse).
One of the great things about this play is we all knew kids like these kids. There was that one over-achiever, the know-it-all and the loser. Each one of the characters could be one of our friends from our childhood or even ourselves.
Another great part of this show is, while it’s centered on children, these characters are anything but immature and shallow. They have depth the way any other person would, the way adults sometimes find funny when someone so young has a distinct persona. But, in this play, it isn’t so much amusing as it is gratifying.
Since the show is a fairly comedic musical, there needs to be some level of realism, and watching these kids struggle through the challenges of a spelling bee on top of the difficulties that come with being a kid lends this show a certain weight.
To fulfill the depth of the show, you need actors that can live up to the expectations of the vibrant characters. This cast can certainly do that. When you watch VanAlstine’s Olive pine for her parents, it’s more then just a little heart wrenching.
Marcy’s choice between trying to be perfect and just being herself seems very real, despite the corresponding background music.
The show also tackles many present day social issues. Things like homosexuality, putting huge pressures on children, depression and the idea of marital troubles take their turns at center stage, making this more then just a light-hearted romp.
That’s not to say this show isn’t a total blast to watch. It is. Watching the drama unfold between the kids and the adults is very entertaining and some of the best parts of the show are when vice principal Panch is giving definitions and using the words in a sentence.
Also, the audience can’t help but be wrapped up in the excitement. Four audience members are called up by name to compete against the cast during the bee and are asked to spell words that range in difficulty from “cow” to a word that means, “to bathe in the blood of a ram.”
While the show has a few minor issues – it can be hard to hear solo parts of songs despite the actors having mics – it is overall a fun time at the theater and a great excuse to revisit your time in elementery school.
Catch “The 25 Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at the Sponberg Theatre in the Quirk Theatre building at 7 p.m. June 9-11.