“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” may be a mouthful of a title, but UB’s fall musical certainly gave audiences a lot to chew on. Featuring five lovable but awkward spelling bee contestants competing for a coveted title, the show immediately catches the audience’s attention with its shocking adult humor, campy costumes and heartfelt narrative.
With assless chaps, ripped fishnets, gigantic top hats and glittery golden tap shoes, the cast’s costumes, designed by junior theatre major E Lyons, embrace unconventionality and bring the characters to life in unique and unprecedented ways.
“All of the design team has contributed to enhancing the humor of the show visually through their work,” Lyons said. “And that is only compounded upon by how well the cast has taken to their roles and the sort of the details and the nuance that they’re bringing to their performances. We’re lucky enough to have a director for this production who was interested and committed to a visually-different spelling bee than maybe people who are already familiar with the show expect.”
There’s hardly anything familiar or expected about this production. It’s remarkable, and often adult humor, meets audience laughter at almost every punch line.
William Barfee (Derrian J. Brown), a bizarre geek afflicted with a mucus membrane condition, forces the audience into uncomfortable, but loud amusement with his unusual and ridiculous nipple rubbing, body gyrating and magical foot — his secret to spelling success.
Even the briefer comedic moments will make one smile and maybe even tear up — in the good way, of course. Preppy and perky Marcy Park (Kyra Orgass) orders a pizza mid-competition, offering the frustrated delivery boy only a blown kiss as a tip. One flustered speller (Julia Pitarresi) desperately needs a Xanax prescription — and a new therapist.
In “Pandemonium,” a commentary on the unfairness and random nature of both life and spelling bees, the stage fills with colorful flashing lights and an insane assortment of props, ranging from a turkey to a toy fire truck to a gigantic stuffed bear. It is utter chaos and dazzles in its structured messiness.
After Chip Tolentino (Glen Chitty) gets a poorly-timed erection before his turn to go up to the podium and is promptly eliminated, he returns to open Act II with “My Unfortunate Erection.” The fourth-wall-breaking, jarringly funny number sees Tolentino chuck lollipops at the audience and lament the tragically unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of erections.
“As much as I say ‘Unfortunate Erection,’ it’s kind of a celebration,” junior musical theatre major Glen Chitty said. “Most of the time I’m really upset about myself, but then for the rest of it, I’m like, ‘Yahoo, Yipee!’”
Despite its humor and boundless comedic potential, “Spelling Bee” tackles serious topics and insecurities that each contestant must cope with.
Leaf Coneybear (NJ Wingo) faces self-doubt and the unempathetic mockery of his own family for his previous spelling bee letdowns. Believing that he is unintelligent and incapable, Coneybear battles his feelings of inadequacy with humor, optimism and splits.
In “I’m Not That Smart (Reprise),” Coneybear accepts himself regardless of his elimination, finding contentment in his small successes. Coneybear wows the audience with his incredible flexibility, choreographed tricks and showmanship, all while offering ruminations on anxiety and apprehension.
Similarly, Marcy Park (Kyra Orgass) represents a burnt-out child struggling to free herself from others’ unreasonably overly demanding expectations. Having competed in Nationals as Virginia’s top speller, Park is practically a shoe-in for the title. “I Speak Six Languages” sees Park brag about her impressive talents and then break down entirely from the suffocating pressure of being No. 1.
Although the show dives into serious topics, it never drags. Only through an impromptu cameo from a dragged-up member of the Holy Trinity, Jesus (Glen Chitty), is Park able to let go of the “golden child” title and its heavy burden.
Park may deal with burn out, but junior musical theatre major Kyra Orgass, who plays her, does not. She lives for the thrill and adrenaline of the stage.
“We haven’t been doing shows for the past three days and I missed it so much,” Orgass said.
The show delivers uncensored, relevant comedy with a tongue firmly in its cheek. But it also speaks sincerely to the challenges and mental healing that young people inherently experience.
“It’s kind of about community which sounds so cheesy, but they highlight a lot of everyone’s flaws or quirks but then everyone has this sense of camaraderie,” Haylee Brown, a senior musical theatre major, said.
Each of this heartfelt musical’s characters — and its actors — are charmingly themselves, and by the show’s conclusion, the audience embraces their relatability, vulnerability and openness onstage.
Spelled out, UB’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is undoubtedly U-N-I-Q-U-E.
Alex Novak is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The arts desk can be reached at email@example.com
Alex Novak is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum.