It was my pleasure to see the preview of the Michigan Musical Theater Department’s second show this season, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This show is an absolute riot and an effortlessly entertaining experience, making it a superior addition to the Dexter community’s cultural offerings. This marks one of the first, if not the inaugural performance with SMTD and the Encore Theater. As one of Southeast Michigan’s premiere theater companies, it Is thrilling to see this collaboration with such talented students from our university.
Spelling Bee has achieved notable success as a standalone show. Its 2005 Off-Broadway production secured three Drama Desk Awards for Best Book, Director, and Ensemble Performance. The original Broadway cast garnered three Drama Desk Nominations and Six Tony Nominations, resulting in two Tony wins for Best Book (Rachel Sheinkin) and Featured Actor (Dan Fogler). Rachel Sheinkin’s book is marked by effortless wit, and the narrative unfolds with impeccable pacing. It seamlessly transitions between tender, grounded moments and a campy atmosphere that almost feels too whimsical to be true. Just when you anticipate a lull in the story, the writing takes an unexpected turn that keeps you on the edge of your seat. William Finn, known for his compositions in Falsettos and A New Brain (both of which received Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations and national recognition), brings his musical expertise to Spelling Bee. His music is nuanced and brings a campy yet touching score, while catering to the modern listener’s sensibilities. Sheinkin and Finn make a formidable creative team, delivering a distinctive theatrical experience through their work on Spelling Bee.
One of the show’s standout aspects is the interactive audience experience, which is a pleasantly abrupt surprise that contributes to the cast’s infectious energy. The moderator, Miss Rona Lisa Peretti, will call out random contestants from the audience to participate in the Bee! If you are a uniquely gifted speller… this is your chance!
This production features fantastic stage direction by Vince Cardinal and music direction by Tyler Driscoll, accompanied with a fantastically organized and attentive pit. The musicians performed on-stage with a creatively spaced pit behind the stage. The design on this show was equally fantastic, with some unexpected hidden surprises sprinkled inside the set. The thrust style stage gives each seat a unique theatrical experience.
It’s always a delight to witness the musical theater students’ performances throughout the year. One impressive aspect of this particular show that stood out to me was the physicality among the vast range of ages. Each of the “competing spellers” seemed to embody the natural posture and mannerisms of anxious preteens awaiting their turn to compete. The adults all held a noticeable poise to set them apart. The costuming equally complemented the playful and innocent essence of the kids, and youthfully spirited adults. These college students truly transformed into their characters and out of the many young adults I know at SMTD.
Needless to say, Spelling Bee rekindled the excitement of my inner child, and I anticipate that it will be a successful and thrilling run for the U-M Musical Theater students and Dexter Theater. The show will kick off its run tonight, October 19th, at 7:30 pm, and will continue with a ten-show schedule until October 23rd, culminating with a matinee at 2 pm. I strongly encourage anyone contemplating attending to find a kind friend with a car or splurge on the Uber to Dexter and experience this fantastic show; it’s unquestionably worth the brief journey from Ann Arbor.
Image thanks to The Encore Theater and University of Michigan SMTD.