The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical comedy that revolves around the lives of six adolescents competing in a spelling bee. Directed by Julie Fishell, the musical made its debut May 18 at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) through UCSB’s Department of Theater and Dance.
Exploring topics of puberty, family pressures, and the conflicts between parents, the plot seamlessly balances humor and heartache.
The musical transforms from a simple spelling competition into an eccentric joyride for audiences as they witness Jesus Christ enter the stage through a curtain of bubbles, Charlito Tolentino indignantly tossing candy to the crowd after his elimination, and the undeniable talents of Marcy Park, performing the splits and other gymnastic tricks during her solo, “I Speak Six Languages.”
An added element of surprise was the audience involvement, which included two children and a parent. The participation of the young girls in the spelling bee had the audience cheering and awing, as the young girls were quizzed on words such as banana and house, but ultimately sent back to their seats after the misspellings of vase and boutique.
Roni Ragone’s performance as William Barfée dazzled onstage. From their entrance, Ragone incited laughter with their smug smile and proud display of their “magic foot” — Barfée’s technique for spelling words. Ragone’s natural comedic talent in both physical and vocal performance shined most brilliantly in “Magic Foot,” an ode to Barfée’s unique technique.
The song, which revolved around Barfée, became the highlight of the night, with the ensemble’s energy illuminating the stage. The crowd erupted in laughter and cheers when Eric Carlson, an ensemble member, walked onstage dressed as a bare foot. The cast raises the foot, in an act of worship and celebration, and the energy ripples throughout the audience. The sheer absurdity of it all added to the hilarity and made me remember how fun theater could be.
The balance between this absurdity and the second act’s shift into an emotional and heartfelt tone is perfectly carried by Olive Ostrovsky’s “The I Love Young Song,” where Ostrovsky reveals her estranged relationship with her parents and her yearning for their validation. As a musical that teems with bizarre energy, it was a well-needed act to be grounded in a moment of vulnerable heartache.
The cast’s rendition of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee allows it to succeed both as a musical and a comedy. The entire cast delivers vibrant and potent performances and the production fully embraces all the weirdness and quirkiness of its characters. This combination creates a delightful atmosphere for audiences to enjoy. I know I did.