A spelling bee is a familiar childhood competition for most people. Last weekend, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical comedy originated by Rebecca Feldman with lyrics and music by William Finn, came to Swarthmore. This theatrical performance, through the efforts of nine performers, eleven production team members and nine orchestra players, brought the audience many laughs through six touching and unique stories.
“I find the story lines about each child’s past moving and meaningful,” Alexandra Huber-Weiss ’13, the director of the performance, said. The musical, far from simply being an elementary school spelling competition, contains deep emotional messages about the difficulties of beginning puberty and shows the transformation of kids into teenagers.
This spelling bee is a life-changing experience for most of its participants. William Barfee, played by Henry Kietzman ’14, changes from a rude, harsh kid who puts up walls around himself to avoid being hurt to a soft and gentle guy who eventually learns to care and love. According to Kietzman, William is alienated by people around him because of his serious nasal problem. To compensate for the pain he feels from people’s rejection, he refuses to show the friendly and lovable part of himself. “He’s so sweet and does actually care about others, but has been stepped on so many times that he just doesn’t want to deal with it anymore,” Kietzman said of his own (and favorite) character,William. Olive Ostrovsky, played by Kate Wiseman ‘15, is one of the first people to gi, starred in the ve William a chance. At the end of the competition, Olive and William are competing for the champion. Olive spells her word wrong. Then, it comes to William and he knows how to spell the word for him. However, he is afraid that he will lose Olive, his first friend, if he wins the contest. “That’s why he has so much difficulty nearing the end of the play, deciding whether he should win or give it up for her,” Kietzman said, “the dichotomy there almost eats him alive during the last songs.”
It is this sense of William’s ambivalence that Kietzman finds especially challenging to portray. William ultimately decides to fight for himself and to avoid being stepped on by others as usual. According to Kietzman, another difficulty in playing the character of William was “creating this air of disgusting repulsiveness while still keeping him likable.”
Unlike William, who experienced such an enormous change because of this contest, Ms. Rona Lisa Perretti — played by Jennie Gauthier ’15 — has always kept a sense of passion. Her passion lies with the Bee. Having hosted the Spelling Bee for nine years, Ms. Perretti is excited about every moment of the competition. “I think she is really hard-working and takes her jobs very seriously, both as a top realtor and as the Bee’s host,” Gauthier said. Considering Ms. Perretti a zealous spectator in the play, Gauthier believes she and her character have certain personality traits in common: they both enjoy their work and hobbies and everyone around them can feel this passion.
The 2005 Broadway production of this musical exerted a certain impact on the performance at the college. Huber-Weiss tried to incorporate several elements she liked about the Broadway show, such as the choice of costumes, into the college production, while also changing some other aspects. She considers the Broadway version to be slightly darker, especially for the protagonist, William Barfee, who “is much less likable and meaner than the way I wanted him to be,” Huber-Weiss said.
Kietzman also sensed the difference between his character and the one in the Broadway version. Under Kietzman’s portrayal, William was less self-confident and much more self-conscious. “the original character is much more of a caricature than what I wanted to present with my take on William. I wanted him to be realistic, a little silly, and hilarious without sacrificing his validity,” he said.
A special aspect of the show is the participation of the audience. Four members of the audience are able to go on the stage and join in the Spelling Bee and compete with other players. Huber-Weiss thinks this part is important “because it allows the audience to connect viscerally to the characters they are watching.” The audience members who participated in the play were able to feel the real pressure placed on them by the competition. Huber-Weiss believes some moments of the play also require that the audience cry. “I know that I was moved to tears on a regular basis, even after watching the play countless times,” she said.
Kana Matsumoto ’14, who came to see a Swarthmore theater production for the first time, regretted that she had not seen any in her freshman year. She enjoyed several aspects of the play, one being “the way [the director] used the stairs of Upper Tarble as part of their performance,” she said. She especially liked the part of the performance that involved audience participation. “I bet that they practiced a lot with the consideration of how many questions audience participants can answer,” she commented.
David Lin ’15 agreed. He found the interaction between the audience and the performers really hilarious, saying “seeing people you know acting as themselves and being a character is awesome.”
Danielle Delpéche ’15, an audience member who participated in spelling bees when she was little, thinks the show is very realistic in showing the stress the competitors have and the reasons they are so motivated and determined to win.
This performance of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee brought its performers and its audience back to their time in elementary school, when carefree children begin to learn the meaning of the emotions in life. It leaves people not just laughter, but beautiful and precious memories.