Learning how to spell with Melodramatics Theatre Company

Chip Tolentino (Grant Beals) gets flustered during the competition.  Photo: Matt Munsey

Chip Tolentino (Grant Beals) gets flustered during the competition.
Photo: Matt Munsey

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee  
Who Melodramatics Theatre Company, Inc. 
Where Risley Theatre at Cornell University; 302 Risley Hall, Ithaca
When Through April 20
Tickets $15; $10 for students
Review by Christina Riley 

F-U-N sums up Melodramatics Theatre Company’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Jon Hamel directs this six time Tony nominated musical at Cornell’s Risley Hall Theater, which features a cast of nine eccentric logophiles competing for the annual prize of spelling champ. Each has an unforgettable personality, which makes this comedic musical so entertaining.

The 100-seat black box theater is transformed into the scholastically decorated, blue and yellow auditorium. The space makes for an intimate performance and enhances the comedic elements of the one-act play. Perhaps the most fun and distinctive feature of this musical, though, is the audience participation. Before the house opens, audience members are selected to compete on stage with the actors in the bee. This gives the actors the opportunity to ad-lib, making each performance unique with a new cast of participants every night.

The improvised bits garnered the most laughs and emotion. During this particular show, a middle aged woman, young child, and a college-aged girl were chosen. One of the contestant’s words was “crepuscule” which means twilight. When the contestant asked for the word to be used in the sentence, the announcer, Doulas Panch (played by Trevor Stankiewicz) replied, “Stephanie Meyer was digging through J.K. Rowling’s trash and found a half written script called crepuscule.”

The young child, about 6 or 7 dressed in a black star wars hoodie, approaches the microphone and is given the word, bingo. He leans up on his tiptoes and spells it, “B-I-N-G-O.” The audience cheers and he returns to the dais. His second word, “umami,” is clearly above his spelling range. He tries, “O-M-A-M-I,” but doesn’t quite get it and is again cheered for his effort.

The cast of 'Spelling Bee.'  Photo: Matt Munsey

The cast of ‘Spelling Bee.’
Photo: Matt Munsey

The six cast contestants are all aged adolescent or pre-adolescent.. Leaf Coneybear (Miller Brackett) is whimsical. In oversized overalls (which he made himself), he seems to be oblivious to the reality of the spelling bee, but somehow spells most words correctly when the time comes. Marcy Park (Natalee Merrill) is “all-business,” as she points out; she knows six languages, is athletic and was in the top 10 contestants from last year’s national competition.

Chip Tolentino (Grant Beals) is a boy scout and is coming to terms with puberty, which hilariously affects his competitive edge during the bee. Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Brianna Ford) has two overbearing dads who really want her to win. She has a lisp, speaks her mind, knows more than she should for her age and is very self-assured.

Olive Ostrovsky (Rebecca Skowron) is precocious, yet shy and conflicted about her parent’s constant absence in her life. One of her words, “chimerical,” explains her ideals about life and how she views her parents even though her mom is in India on a spiritual quest and her dad is late to the competition. William Barfee (Anthony Marchitto), which he repeatedly corrects the pronunciation as  “bar-fay” as in parfait, has a magic foot, which is his spelling aid. He has a comical, child-like disregard for all humanity but soon softens from the kindness of Olive. This odd but lovable pair becomes the focal point of the musical and the two win over the audience with their quirky chemistry.

While there weren’t standout performers, each of the cast (most were are Cornell or Ithaca College students) delivered a solid performance.  This production calls for big voices which is where the trouble comes and voices get a bit out of key and pitchy in songs like, “Pandemonium” where several cast members have heavy solos. It’s when they tackle smaller numbers like, “The Magic Foot” and “My First Goodbye” that the cast rises to the occasion, voices reach the right pitch and harmonies really work.

Spelling Bee is for the nerdy kids in all of us, who probably don’t know how to spell crepuscule. But, hey, now we know how to spell it.

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