25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: A musical with heart, and lots of complicated words.

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Strabismus. Boanthropy. Omphaloskepsis. Phylactery. Could you have spelled these words?

After having escaped middle school and high school several years ago, the last thing I wanted to do was go back and cringe at my memories of that part of my life. But Rutgers-NJIT Theatre’s performance this past week of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Jim Wise Theatre instead sent me on a pleasant trip down memory lane, strewn with laughs all night long.

The story follows a group of spellers—Chip Tolentino (John Lombardi), William Morris Barfeé (Antonio Johnson), Olive Ostrovsky (Laura Phillips), Marcy Park (Alicia Kaur), Logainne “Schwarzy” SchwartzandGrubenniere (try spelling that!) (Anya Semenova), and Leaf Coneybear (Charley Furey)—as they compete at this year’s county spelling bee.

Throughout the musical, the audience gains some insight into each one’s backstory, learning about the big and little things that make them the awkward little nuggets that they are. Of course, the spelling bee aspect of the musical takes front stage, as each character is called up one-by-one to spell, each one dealing with his or her word in a peculiar yet endearing way. Also in the mix are the comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (Isaac Jimenez), moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Kassandra Perez), and vice-principal and word pronouncer Douglas Panch (Darian Capellan). What was unexpected was the involvement of audience volunteers who were called to the stage to participate in the spelling bee itself.

At first glance, the stage is quite plain. Its simplicity, however, belies dynamics that are unleashed throughout the play. The exciting versatility of the chairs, the playful use of lighting, and the magnificent reveals of the curtains all transform the small stage into a set full of life and stories.

The cast does a wonderful job of portraying the characters and their quirks. From the vulnerable Olive to the formidable Marcy, the characters form a gradient of personalities that color a generation of kids (and adults), and the cast encapsulates each delightfully. Furey’s portrayal of happy-go-lucky Leaf brightens up the room while Semenova’s portrayal of Schwarzy and her endurance of pressure from her parents pull on some heartstrings. Capellan’s dry delivery of his lines adds another layer of humor to the already-funny script of the musical.

The music does a fantastic job of complementing the action in the musical. Song standouts include “I Speak Six Languages” and “The I Love You Song,” which showcase Kaur’s and Perez’ crystal-clear voices, respectively. “My Unfortunate Erection,” as powerfully delivered by John Lombardi, also captivated the audience with its humorous content.

Director Michael Kerley’s decision to tackle something a bit simpler with this semester’s musical does not betray the talents that were present on stage. Everyone commits to his or her character, delivering lines with the precise comedy necessitated.

~Jeremy Buhain

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