This weekend, The Ritz Theatre is to host the "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." But don't be confused. It's not a real spelling bee but a musical comedy about a spelling competition and six young competitors eager to display the skills their coaches have drilled into them.
The main stage at The Ritz becomes the contest hall as The Ritz Players present the show at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and July 20. A matinee is planned for 2 p.m. July 21.
There is no musical overture for this production. As the curtain rises, Valerie Thames, the hostess for the bee, arrives ahead of the contestants to check their paperwork and to reminisce about her time in the spotlight as the winner of this same spelling championship.
Thames' character, Rona Lisa, also serves as a kind of narrator as she introduces the participants. One by one, they enter with individual flair.
Sam Waugaman portrays Chip Tolentino, who appears with an array of badges on his Boy Scout sash and an obvious case of OCD. Just before intermission, Chip is distracted (mentally and physically) by Leaf Coneybear's pretty sister sitting in the audience.
Waugaman's portrayal of the dilemma is as hilarious as it is heart-wrenching. His loss of concentration makes him the first to be booted from the bee, much to his disbelief.
Sarah Engeman as Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre probably became an expert speller in writing her own name. On top of that, she has a speech impediment. During the competition, she spells out words on her arm as a memory device.
The audience later learns her two dads have relentlessly supported her aspirations. Her energetic delivery of her lines and songs suggests inner tension begging to burst out.
With a flash of red cape, Brandon Allomong dashes in as the exuberant Coneybear. He greets his family from the stage and forces himself to sit down; his face and body rarely stop moving during the entire show. Each trip to the microphone is a chance to sweep the cape about.
Having been bullied at school, Coneybear has been home-schooled, but his family also has told him he is "not that smart." This is his big chance to show them.
Brad Rowe takes the role of the self-important William Barfee. In spite of a constant battle with nasal congestion and allergies, he marches in ready to get down to business.
Of course, no one can correctly pronounce his last name. Tired of correcting the host, he resigns himself to the alternate pronunciation with "whatever."
Barfee's spelling tactic includes carrying a rabbit's foot and tracing the spelling of each syllable with his "magic foot" before spelling it. After spelling each word that is correct, he declares, "I know" before returning to his chair.
Rowe's physical size enhances the pomposity of his portrayal.
The straight-faced Marcy Park, played by Hannah Mathias, arrives in proper black and gray stripes. Her coaches have high expectations and she is bent on fulfilling them.
Stern and unemotional, she sings in six languages while performing yo-yo tricks; however the pressure is wearing on her. She is "tired of being the best and brightest." During a silent prayer, Jesus appears and tells her he will love her whether she wins or loses the spelling bee.
Alycia Harrison is cast as the sixth contestant, Olive Ostrovsky. Behind her smile, she is anxious for her father to arrive in time to see her compete (and to pay her entry fee). The audience learns her mother is away on a retreat of some kind.
A phone call from Dad interrupts the competition, but Rona makes an exception to the rules and takes the call on Olive's behalf. The message: Dad won't make it, after all. Only "My Friend, The Dictionary" is always there for her.
The audience may not recognize any of the musical numbers from the show, but they will likely identify with the characters' internal emotions carefully concealed behind their game faces.
As the students strive to focus on winning the trophy, snatches of doubt and painful memories invade their thoughts. The cast takes on multiple roles for brief flashbacks as each speller reflects on what they have done to reach this point.
Each has won a local spelling bee, but not without relentless study and practice.
The adults in charge of the spelling bee add their drama to the mix.
Chip Johnson as Vice Principal Douglas Panch dictates the words to be spelled, reads definitions and uses them in sentences. He apologizes for an incident at a prior spelling bee without full explanation. During the competition he becomes very irritable. Although he says he is "lactose intolerant," the diagnosis appears to be hypoglycemia.
Panch's deeper problem appears to be dissatisfaction with being second best. Like the students, he wants to be a winner.
Acting as a comfort counselor and sergeant at arms is Joshua Harris as Mitch. As each contestant is eliminated, he gives the student a juice box and escorts the person offstage. Some are more accepting than others. Having been through some personal hardships, Mitch would like to take the children aside and tell them about what really matters in life. It is not about being a champion speller. Words have a right or wrong spelling, while life is not so easy to decipher.
During the contest, the contestants not only spell but learn about such terms as epiphany, discernment, compassion, vulnerability, sexuality, tolerance, empathy, independence and maturity. The adults also learn more about themselves.
At the conclusion, each character describes where he or she went after the spelling bee.
"Chip's Lament" to open Act II contains adult language, which also pops up in a few other places. Younger audience members and adults are cautioned.