Who are those crazy kids who sleep with dictionaries and spend hours a day memorizing words just so they can win a spelling bee? What techniques do they use to remember those obscure and seldom used words? What happens if they come in second or third, and not in first place?
Midcoast Theater Company’s latest production, a 90-minute, one-act musical comedy, answers all those questions and more on stage at Belfast Area High School in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The nine-person cast is a tight ensemble of talented local singers and actors who squeeze all the laughs and pathos possible out of the lyrics and lines.
The show was conceived and workshopped in 2004 at a theater company in the Berkshires, before moving to Broadway the following year.
Six adolescent students, each with his or her own quirks, compete at the Putnam Valley Middle School for the title of best speller in the county. The bee is run by three equally quirky adults.
The show has more than 20 songs that move the plot along and help define each character. There’s just one show-stopping number but it is a doozy. “The I Love You Song,” sung by contestant Olive Ostrovsky and her constantly absent parents, is heartbreaking in its sincerity, painful in its honesty and musically stunning in its harmonies.
Director Sarah Joy, who’s also in the cast, turns the actors loose on these nine roles and lets them infuse the characters with foibles and tics that make each one interesting and unique. Joy keeps the show moving at a near frantic pace so the audience is always engaged.
The boys, Chip Tolentino (Dakota Wing), Leaf Coneybear (Tyler Johnstone) and William Morris Barfee(Jason Bannister), are a bundle of adolescent energy. Johnstone is especially good at exuding the constant movement and excitement of an adolescent male, while Wing is convincing and hysterical when Chip experiences a very different problem that plagues his age group. Bannister, sporting a wig and glasses complete with tape across the nose piece, is delightfully needy and nerdy as Barfee, pronounced “Bar-fay”.
The girls, Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Joy), Marcy Park (Autumn Stupca) and Olive (Jessica Smith), wax and wane between being full of self-doubt to exuding exuberant confidence. Joy’s shy and humble teenager with a lisp gains confidence with each new word. Stupca, whose character is a child genius and speaks six languages, wears her attitude like armor to protect herself from any and all feelings. Smith infuses Olive, the contestant who arrived without her parents, with a wisdom that far exceeds her years and a heart that breaks from loneliness.
The adults, Rona Lisa Peretti (Melissa Samuels), Douglas Panch (Mark Durbin) and Mitch Mahoney (Nathan Roach), sometimes act more adolescent than the competitors.
Peretti gives the director of the competition a delightful obsession for spelling and Roach’s “comfort coach” dispenses juice boxes, hugs and hankies with an aplomb that can only be acquired behind prison bars. Durbin’s dry delivery as the vice principal, who offers up words, definitions and sentence use to contestants, is hysterical. The actor probably should have tried out to be the new host on “Jeopardy.”
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a welcome addition to the return of live performances after so many months of silence and dark theaters. The cast and crew put on a lively production that tickles the funny bone, tugs at the heartstrings and meets the high standards this community theater company has set in previous productions.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at Belfast Area High School, 41 Lions Way, Belfast. For more information, call 207-370-7592 or visit https://www.midcoasttheater.org.