George Street Playhouse's 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' S-L-A-Y-S
In my most recent bid to see more live theater and, yes, pass my Theater Appreciation class, I made my way down to New Brunswick's own George Street Playhouse to see its production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" — and I'm so glad I did.
As somewhat of a nerd myself, seeing the wacky characters in Putnam County be their authentic, wordsmithing selves was uniquely hilarious. I could recognize my younger self, my friends and my classmates as I watched the show's archetypal characters perform on stage. And even those who cannot fully relate to this musical will find a line to laugh at, a song to sing along with and a character to root for.
At the theater, prior to the curtains opening, I noticed that there was a spot for "guest speller" sign-ups, but since I had only arrived a few minutes before the show was set to begin and still needed to purchase my ridiculously overpriced snack, I glided on by and entered the theater without thinking much of it.
This ended up being a mistake, as one of the most charming aspects of the show was its inclusion of "guest spellers" — audience members brought on stage and lightly made fun of as they're invited to spell different words along with the in-character contestants. The guests are twirled around in the show's musical numbers and pulled along, regardless of their spelling skills, into the show's antics.
The show gives nods to the audience throughout its run by adding in small touches, like one character passing out pamphlets to attendees to another throwing candy and popcorn out into the theater.
With the script leaving room for improvisation, the show opts to include several topical references rather than a strictly by-the-book performance. Included in the musical are jokes about a certain celebrity as future president and the current political state of the world.
The cast, too, elevates this script (and the fun songs of the show) to new levels. It's hard to pick a favorite performance, as each person stepped into their role with what felt like flawless ease.
Some characters, like Lila Coogan's shy, charming and heartbreaking Olive Ostrovsky, are given more to do than others — I was left wanting more of Sumi Yu, who delightfully plays perfectionist Marcy Park.
In addition to Coogan and Yu, Sammy Pignalosa as the earnest but dimwitted Leaf Coneybear, Aaron Michael Ray as spelling-bee-loser-comforter Mitch Mahoney and Angel Lin as the precocious youngest speller, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, all provide standout performances.
That being said, there's not a weak spot in the relatively small cast and I was left enthralled and impressed with whoever was on stage. The chemistry between the actors is excellent, with the animosity, camaraderie and the nostalgic giggly-nervousness of childhood crushes all coming together in an authentic way.
The production of the show in terms of costuming, set, sound and lighting is also incredible, keeping me engaged with the story and appreciative of the cast's captivating performances.
In looking up the show online, I was a little dismayed to find that George Street Playhouse had gone with the show's reworked, more optimistic ending. I feel like the original, bittersweet one was better for the characters and would have elicited a more emotional response from the audience. Regardless, it's difficult to find fault in the show's performances themselves.
With interactive narratives and an amazing cast, George Street Playhouse's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a lovely slice of theater. So for anyone interested in watching this show before it ends on April 9, start walking down George Street and don't stop until you get there.