This past weekend, students from Swarthmore’s theater department shined under the pressure of the crowd as they returned to middle school to compete in Putnam County’s 25th Annual Spelling Bee in four separate showings . Serving as Swarthmore’s first production of Broadway musical, a winner of the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Book, the musical drew the Swarthmore community into a competitive sphere of quirky contestants all destined for greatestness in the spotlight of the spelling bee. The following is a review of the 8 p.m. performance on Saturday, Nov. 11th.
The Pearson-Hall Theatre had undergone a transformation perfectly suited for the raucous spectacle that would be taking place. The stage was decorated like a gymnasium, with a basketball hoop hanging above the visually stimulating color scheme of orange, white, and blue. To stage right, there were two rows of chairs for the contestants to sit in, and on stage left, the judges’ table was assembled. As I took my seat, I recalled my own experience participating in the district spelling bee in the Eighth grade – and inevitably failing miserably as I became the first contestant to exit the bee. Although not a pleasant memory, I was eager to return to that period of vibrant lucidity, where you are one with the English language.
As the lights dimmed, Rona Lisa Peretti, played by Jonie Ross ’21, took to the stage for set-up, carrying a box with the glorious trophy all winners yearned to hold. Moderator of the spelling bee and former winner herself, she flashes back to her winning word, “syzygy”, exuding confidence in front of the microphone and setting the tone for the whimsical humor and unique characters and storytelling that made the musical such a success. After an opening number that introduced us to each contestant, as well as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, the only non-singing role with a standout performance by Colin Spangler ’20. Shortly after, four individuals from the crowd, who had arrived early and were invited to spell on the mainstage alongside the performers, were called up to participate.
For the next two hours, the spellers vied for their rightful place as victor, but the performers held their own as their backstories were presented through a variety of solos. Omar Camper-Kamrin ’20 , playing Leaf Coneybear, with his pajama-like attire, ridiculous cape, and “dumb kid” persona, left the crowd gasping for breath as he spelled words such as “acouchi” like a goofily possessed magician.
Ziv Stern ’20, was utterly convincing as the touchy William Morris Barfée; his special spelling technique, the “Magic Foot” was a pleasure to watch onstage, as well as the continued mispronunciation of his name (accompanied by hysterical banter with the Vice Principal).
Lali Pizarro ‘20 did a phenomenal job as Logainne “Schwarzy” SchwartzandGrubenierre, spelling with an amusing lisp and delivering biting political commentary and a fun presentation of her unfortunately strict relationship with her gay fathers in the number “Woe is Me”.
Zach Weiss ‘20 , who played Charlito “Chip” Tolentino, had possibly the most hilarious moment as the contestant who won last year but was unable to reprise his role as the winner due to bein distracted by his erection. (I really wish I’d had some of the “confection that would ruin my complexion” thrown at me in his later number, “My Unfortunate Erection”.)
Grace Dumdaw ’21 performed as the stoic, “business-like” Marcy Parks, the most perfect of the contestants but quickly tiring of her successes. Although I wish her character had more speaking time, her singing was stunning.
Finally, Maya Kikuchi ’20 had arguably the most essential role in the musical, touching the hearts of the audience with the most compelling backstory and personality as Olive Ostrovosky, a soft-spoken girl who made friends with her dictionary and is waiting for her father to arrive to see her win.
The play contained a number of surprise highlights that kept me and the people around me thoroughly entertained throughout the performance.
During one of the musical’s earliest group numbers, “Pandemonium,” the performance suffered a hiccup when one of the legs of the trophy broke off. However, the cast members on stage continued on like professionals, throwing away the broken piece and returning the trophy to its place as if nothing had happened.
The invited contestants themselves stuck out like sore thumbs among the enthusiastic cast, but they behaved well, treating the performance as a legitimate spelling bee. My favorite moment of the musical was the improvisation of the last “guest” contestant as he accidentally spelled a difficult word. The Vice Principal then prompted him with an impossible word and rung the bell prematurely, prompting the guest contestant’s exit (with, of course, a juice box) and Lee Gelpi ’20’s star moment as comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, delivering an absolutely stunning vocal performance full of unbelievable soul singing that made me feel like I was in church.
Speaking of which, the appearance of Jesus after Grace Dumdaw ’21 performed her impressive solo “I Speak Six Languages” was my candidate for the most unexpected moment. Strangely, it fit with the quirky style of the musical and kept my attention glued to the stage.
The most impressive musical numbers would have to be a tie between Olive’s “I Love You” song with her “chimerical” parents and the duet between Barfee and Olive, “Second.” Both occurring near the end of the play, the former inevitably tugged at my heartstrings with tour de force singing from Kikuchi and her parents, played by Ross and Camper-Karmin. The latter focused on the Barfee and Olive’s brewing relationship, which initially felt forced but later became something much sweeter and endearing following the conclusion of the spelling bee. Regardless, both demonstrated the vocal chops of the performers and helped serve as powerful conclusion pieces to the musical.
The feel-good atmosphere left me smiling through the shows two-hour run. By the time the cast had sung “The Last Goodbye,” I was already missing the presence of all the quirky personalities I had been observing on stage. The Swarthmore theater department and the cast members all delivered a spectacular, wholesome production that has left me longing for the next musical.