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Eckerd College's Theater Department held "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" musical from April 6 to 9 at the Bininger Theatre. Photo taken from @eckerd_theater.

Flashing lights, nine performers singing and dancing harmoniously and an all-too-familiar middle school gym set the scene for an unforgettable performance. 

The first unmasked musical after two years, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” tells the story of six elementary school students competing against each other in a spelling bee. One by one, each of the spellers take turns spelling words, like “chimerical” or “capybara,” while performing solos and group numbers that transport the audience away from the spelling bee to moments in the contestants’ and judges’ personal lives that showcased their personalities and backgrounds. 

The musical began with an opening song sung by Rona Lisa Perett, played by Karina Pomales, one of the judges who reminisces on her victory spelling “zyzygy” when she had won 23 years ago. The scene quickly flashes forward to the present day spelling bee. 

The play follows the spelling bee from contestant sign-ups to the awards ceremony. Throughout, viewers are reminded of the awkwardness and confusion of adolescence and puberty. For example, Chip Tolentino, portrayed by Sam Papier, develops a crush and erection right before his turn. He proceeds to hold his plaque in front of his crotch before attempting to spell. 

The six spellers are called individually to stand in front of the microphone and spell. Before doing so, they are allowed to ask the judge to use the word in a sentence along with the definition of the word.  The sentences and definitions were often useless clues as Douglas Panch, another judge, portrayed by Kian Debenham, would interlace humor into the clues. For example, when asked to use the word “cow” in a sentence, Panch would reply with “please spell the word cow.” 

Certain characters also had quirks before spelling. William Barfée, played by Ryan Reed, who would have to correct the judges on the pronunciation of his last name, spelled out words using his feet on the floor. Olive Ostrovsky, portrayed by Zoe Smith, spelled out invisible words on her forearms to visualize them. 

Each of the characters had distinct personalities, such as Marcy Park, portrayed by Emily Ferry, who could speak six languages and was rooted to be the winner of the bee and was said to be “all business”— yet didn’t want to be called “all business”. The judges also exhibited unique traits. Mitch Mahoney, played by Sean Crothers, was an ex-convict on parole. He was the “comfort counselor” of the spelling bee, handing out apple juice to the spellers who lost. Mitch looks tough, but is very humorous, as exhibited in his solo “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.” 

Though the plot and musical numbers were witty and amusing, the real showstopper was the cast’s ability to transcend emotion and transport the audience from one time frame to another. Helped by lighting and sound effects, the characters expertly switched from spelling at the bee to pivotal moments in their lives that explain their character deeply. 

This switch was best demonstrated in the scene where the audience gets to know Leaf Coneybear, portrayed by Cooper Hoeksema, who is a kind and easily-distracted character but struggles with self-confidence because of his family’s constant scrutiny of his intelligence. During the spelling bee, Leaf performs the song “I’m Not That Smart,” which is a prime example of how humor and musicality can convey a deeper meaning. Leaf’s song contained a sad and dark message of insecurity due to abuse. 

Undoubtedly, the most intriguing part of the musical lies in its spontaneity. Early in the musical, three audience members were called upon to participate in the spelling bee. They were given easier words, such as cow and rat, to instigate an emotional reaction from the other cast members. The audience members do not know beforehand which words they will be given to spell or which musical numbers they will participate in. 

Overall, Eckerd’s Theater Department has much to be proud of in their first unmasked musical. Gavin Hawk, professor of theater and director, carefully crafted characters’ interpersonal interactions so as to interject constant humor into the play, which had an undertone of more serious themes that befall middle school students in real life.

When paying close attention to the lyrics and facial expressions, viewers recognize the depth and heaviness of the characters — who are just children — having to withstand the pressure of performance and success. In the end, the musical shows that the only expectations you should live up to are your own. 

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