For some kids, their school’s annual spelling bee is the event of the year. They spend hours practicing, working through the standard lists, reading swaths of the dictionary just in case. They pester their parents to quiz them, stand in front of the mirror, poised with shoulders back and chest out, reciting the letters clearly and precisely. All the while, the rest of their friends make fun of their earnestness, asking (as any sane person would) what’s the point?
Whether or not I was a three-year participant in my middle school’s bees, striking out on “rhythmic” in sixth grade right before I would have made regionals, is not important. And whether I Googled “rhythmic” to make sure I was spelling it right, seven years after, is similarly irrelevant.
It takes a certain kind of kid to really get jazzed about spelling bees. They need to be more than a little weird, maybe gawky and awkward, known to be a nerd. She could be the type to have an enormous collection of rocks, or wear exclusively brightly-patterned knee socks.
This musical understands the spelling bee phenomenon very clearly. The participants in the 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee are all afflicted by some circumstance that they carry in their personality. Olive’s parents are neglectful; she speaks in a small voice, cautiously wondering at her place in the world, though as the play goes on, we see her emerge as an incredibly soulful singer. Leaf has a learning disability and what seems to be multiple personality disorder, of which his family never fails to remind him. He gains confidence as he sticks around in the bee for longer than anyone thought was possible. William’s parental situation is less than ideal, and he moves through life sulkily as a result, but he learns compassion for others. Marcy, by fault of her parents, instructors, and herself, is a severe perfectionist, though an intervention from Jesus H. Christ himself allows her to see failing is okay. Logainne is under similar pressure as one father pushes her hard to succeed, while the other is softly loving, yet she remains positive and learns about fairness. And Charlito has…hormonal issues. As every middle school boy must, he grows to love his erections.
Individually, everyone in the cast performed wonderfully. Though part of the character is a product of the playwright, the actor has a lot of freedom to either enhance or detract from the audience’s experience. These actors provided the high-energy vivaciousness only children can apply to life. William was probably my favorite, acting-wise; he is expressive in both facial expressions and body movement. In terms of singing, Rona Lisa and Olive took the cake, especially in the song where they sing as mother and daughter, voices soaring high and strong.
This dramatization of a spelling bee is exactly how bee participants feel. The pressure is incredibly oppressive, the nerves run thin, it feels like the most important performance of their life. Maybe there’ll be a point when a spotlight comes down and you have to sing a jazzy rendition of your life story. Anything feels possible, especially if (when) you win.