Review of the Brelby Theatre Company’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
As a theater goer who had never before seen the musical The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee, I had heard mixed reviews about it over time. Some thespians and theater goers in the Phoenix community have shared that this musical is energetic, quite inclusive of the audience, wild, and an overall exciting show. I have also heard from a few, however, that the show is completely ridiculous, bizarre throughout, and pretty damn weird. Luckily in the case for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, those negative attributes are transformed in ways that actually add to the production as a whole, and transform it into the unique musical I was overjoyed to see at the Brelby Theatre Company.
In order to understand exactly what I mean, let me first give you an idea about the plot of the musical, if you don’t already know.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, directed by Shelby Maticic, focuses on a group of six kids, three boys and three girls, who have been selected to compete for a spot in the National Spelling Bee. They are all a little corky in their own ways, and are all facing their own personal problems deep within. Accompanying the six spellers are the event’s two facilitators, a bubbly, popular real-estate agent who had won the Putnam County Spelling Bee back in her day, and the dorky Vice Principal of the school the bee is hosted in. Then, popping in and out of the competition to comfort the eliminated spellers, is a local delinquent who is surprisingly personable, serving his parole by doing community service at the bee.
As Director Maticic wrote in the program, “At the surface of this show is a lighthearted and quick paced comedy about a group of kids who are fighting to win their regional spelling bee and move on to nationals. As you’re about to discover, it also touches on several coming of age themes… from absentee parents to the stresses of being an overachiever… to puberty… to navigating new friendships. This cast worked hard to find the balance between comedy and honesty in their portrayal of these characters, and I hope you come to connect with them as much as we did during the rehearsal process.”
Overall, I walked out of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee extremely satisfied. The show was not only hilarious, but also thought-provoking on the weaknesses found in today’s society, showcasing the way some children are neglected or overworked by their parents. The relationships created between the characters was beyond touching to witness as well.
One of he biggest details of the musical that pleased me and made it creative was the intense audience interaction. Audience members were given the chance to volunteer themselves to actually become a part of the show in the first act, filling in as other spelling bee contestants. This inclusiveness was captivating, drawing all members deeper into the story.
The casting was, in the simplest of terms, on point. The three male students, being polar opposites, were portrayed quite accurately. William Barfee, played by Karson Cook, was the embodiment of the annoying know-it-all dork with a superiority complex. His movements and facial expressions had me rolling with laughter the entire production. The “kid from another planet” character, Leaf Coneybear, was portrayed almost too well by Alex Tuchi. The older sister in me kept wanting to tell the energetic character to sit his butt in his seat each time his jittery personality led him away from the spelling bee. The last male of the group, the sexually-awakened, young sports star Chip Tolentino was played by Ricco Machado. As the champion of the previous year’s spelling bee, Machado was really able to bring the arrogance of his character to the table in a way that wasn’t
Although I loved the three male spellers of the show, I was majorly impressed with the three female spellers in this musical. To start off, Aubrea Robards, who was in her third trimester of pregnancy (her costume was designed so well that you honestly couldn’t tell, I am just very observant), was absolutely fantastic as the sassy, social activist Logainne SwartzandGrubenierre. Her fake lisp and ability to mix adorable with sassy were perfectly executed. I identified personally with Thea Eigo’s character, the over-achieving, beyond talented, almost alien Marcy Park. I was on the verge of giving her a standing ovation when her character decided to give up her life of perfection. Last, but certainly not least out of the group, is Olive Otrovsky, played by the very talented Stephanie Spencer. Her singing voice was absolutely gorgeous, and so seamlessly sweet. It fit her character better than I would have imagined.
And now for our last group of three, the adults of the show! I adored each and every one of these characters. Monica Hernandez Bollt, Devon Mahon, and Kevin Fenderson could not have been casted more perfectly as Rona Lisa Peretti, Vice Principal Douglas Ponch, and as Mitch Mahoney. Hernandez Bollt was fantastic is translating over Rona Lisa’s charm, yet ability to take control of the entire room at the snap of her fingers. On the complete opposite spectrum, Mahon was so awkward as the calm, dorky, yet hilariously witty Vice Principal Ponch. The wacky duo complemented each other nicely, balancing their unique character traits. The character that honestly stole the show though was Fenderson as Mitch Mahoney. He was undoubtedly the best vocal performer in the show, and frankly one of the best out of all the musicals I have seen at Brelby. His voice, tone, and riffing ability had me floored. During his solos, I was transported straight back to my days of *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. I never wanted his singing to end, and have secretly prayed that he auditions for another Brelby musical in the future.
I can confidently say that the Brelby Theatre Company’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was a true zinger. I found myself straining to find anything to gripe about. The only honest thing I would have changed about the show was some of the characters’ projection/annunciation. It always kills me when a voice can not clearly be heard or understood in a blackbox theater. However, other than that I have no real complaints. Even the characters who were not the strongest singers or were slightly off-key made their vocal ranges work in this musical. The ability to morph most of the vocals into character-driven singing was a major plus for this production. So instead of having the strong singers vs the weak singers, you instead had the clear characters with strong pipes working together with the other characters that were hilarious musical performers. A big shout out to Musical Director CJ O’Hara and his live band for their work with the cast. That partnership is honestly what I believe made the musical portion of this show so successful. Without them it may not have been such a smooth mix of the singing abilities.
Although Brelby’s performance of this whimsical musical has closed, I recommend keeping a close eye on their upcoming shows and paying them a visit. Their next upcoming musical will be Dogfight, based off of the original Warner Brother’s film. You can catch this beautifully heartbreaking show in July and August.
For more information on upcoming shows and perks, go ahead and check out Brelby’s website.