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Buzz in the air

The energy is high in the Fort Wayne Civic’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee emits the kind of energy that can only be generated by a gaggle of earnest over-achievers on the verge of adolescence and so eager to prove themselves that they can barely stand it. It’s a jittery energy, a twitchy energy, the kind of buzz that leads to irritating habits like knee bouncing and cuticle chewing.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — which begins its run at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre on May 1 — is a musical comedy. There are nine characters in Putnam County Spelling Bee; six of them are elementary school students taking part in the titular event. But there are a usually a few extra people on stage during the play — at least at the beginning — and one of them might be you… but more on that in a minute.

First, let’s meet our contestants. There’s Marcy Park (Emily Arata), a devout Catholic schoolgirl with a strict upbringing who firmly believes that if she loses the spelling bee God will hate her. On the opposite side of the upbringing spectrum is Leaf Coneybear (Nick Chaney). His parents are hippies, he makes his own clothes, he’s home-schooled and he’s excited to be there. REALLY excited. He’s ADD.

Also excited, but in a different way, is returning champion Chip Tolentino (Robert Shoquist), who is hit with puberty right in the middle of the bee, and finds himself distracted by things he never found distracting before. (This seems a good time to mention that Putnam County Spelling Bee isn’t for kids).

Rounding out the boys on the bleachers is William Barfee (Eric Smead), an arrogant geek with the temperament of a bully. His unfortunate last name means he needs to constantly correct people, and he’s pretty obnoxious about it. He’s also got this trick where he spells the word with his foot.

Then there’s Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Megan Meyer) raised by her two dads to be perfect; and Olive Ostovsky (Emilie Henry) a shy girl, usually left alone by busy or absent parents. Olive likes spelling for its own sake, and one of her early numbers is called “My Friend the Dictionary.”

Meanwhile, the adults and authority figures running the show have their own issues. Rona Perretti (Tracey Graham) has been the bee organizer for years, and likes to run a very tight ship. A former champion, she’s more than a little territorial when it comes to the bee, and sees a little bit of herself in every single one of the contestants.

Rona’s assistant Mitch Mahoney dispenses comfort and juice boxes to the losing contestants. He’s an ex-con, on parole, and is working the bee as apart of his community service.

Reading the words is Douglas Panch (Reuben Albaugh). He’s the Vice Principal of the Putnam Valley Middle School, and always will be. During the 12th annual bee, Panch had an “incident” which resulted in his removal. But just that morning, he got the call asking him back. He’s eager to demonstrate his competence and new-found peace of mind, but running very thin on patience…

And maybe, maybe… you’ll be joining this quirky assemblage on stage. Since this Tony-winning musical made its debut about a decade ago, every production has incorporated several audience members into the show to join the six contestants on the bleachers (during The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’s Broadway run, the show would occasionally slip in a celebrity guest speller).

The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s production continues that tradition. There will a table in the lobby where people can sign up to be considered to be a contestant in the Bee!

As we said, the show isn’t for kids — there’s “frequent mild adult language,” and it “deals humorously with topics of sexuality.”

But it’s a very funny show; it’s quirky spelling contestants are exceptional oddballs and cringe-inducingly normal, and though the humor of Putnam County Spelling Bee is irreverent and merciless, the musical has a compassionate heart when it comes to the spellers. Underneath the quirks and eccentricities it mines for humor, Putnam County Spelling Bee acknowledges that there are serious things happening as these kids try to figure out who they really are. They’re trying to become their own person. To some, that means winning; to others, it means… something else.


The Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Fridays, May 1 and 8 at 8 PM
Saturdays May 2 and 9 at 2 PM and 8 PM
Sundays, May 3 and May 10 at 2 PM

Tickets: $29/adults; $24/ seniors (any performance); $17/age 23 and under

Box Office: (260) 424.5220
or online: fwcivic.org

The show uses frequent mild adult language and deals humorously with topics of sexuality. Parental discretion advised.

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.