Credit: Mark Kitaoka/Village Theatre
When I think of a kids' spelling bee, I don’t usually think of a raucous, riotous, irreverent good time. But “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical on stage now at Village Theatre, turns a spelling bee into fantastic fun.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a Tony-Award winning musical that follows a motley crew of spelling bee hopefuls as they compete to be the spelling champ.
At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story and each character is grappling with growing up. As the contestants compete in the bee, each character shares a bit of their story, using monologues, songs and flashbacks. As these stories unfold, heartbreak and hilarity ensue. Among challenges revealed are parental pressure, neglect, fitting in and, well, unfortunately timed erections. (Yes, you read that right.) When one contestant prays, there’s even a visit from Jesus, with robes, halo and all.
At first glance, “Spelling Bee” might look like a simple production. When my kids and I first walked into the theater, the curtains were open and the set was viewable on stage.
Upon closer inspection, we saw that the set is an impressively constructed replica of a school gymnasium, complete with gym flooring and cheesy motivational posters. The set remains stationary for the entire one-hour-and-forty-minute run, and cast changes and stage exits are minimal, too. Lighting and staging are used creatively and effectively for scene changes through the show. Until contestants are eliminated from the Bee, most of the cast members remain on stage for almost the full length of the performance.
What makes “Spelling Bee” so spellbinding are the loveable and relatable characters. It's what we learn about each competitor and what drives them that makes this story of a small-town spelling bee so entertaining.
For me, the stand-out moments of the show are each of the ensemble cast’s spotlight solos. Though it can be hard to make adult actors believable as kids on stage, this cast beautifully captures the many awful, awkward, anxious and awesome parts of being an eclectic kid.
Justin Huerto’s (Chip Tolentino) side-splitting rendition of “My Unfortunate Erection/Distraction,” had my kids and me in stitches. Taylor Niemeyer’s (Olive Ostrovsky) performance as an earnest and awkward word nerd singing “My Friend, the Dictionary” was so sweet and touching I was moved to tears. Rafael Molina’s (Leaf Coneybear) poignant portrayal of a kid who believes he’s “not that smart” we found both hilarious and heartbreaking.
The bottom line (with spoilers)
If you and your teens (and possibly tweens) need a good laugh, see this show. It’s a belly buster, for sure. One thing that had me all out chortling: the interactive elements of the show. Justin Huerto (Chip Tolentino) throws concessions at the audience after his bee exit, and a few members of the audience are called up to participate in the show as spelling bee contestants.
Audience members who get selected remain on stage for quite some time and are asked to compete right alongside the actors. When they’re called to the mic, Spelling Bee moderators riff on everything from their fashion to their spelling skills. It’s totally cringe-worthy but ultimately hysterical.
What parents should know
- If you’ve got a viewer who needs access to the bathroom, be aware there’s no intermission. But, the show is on the shorter end, with a one-hour and forty-minute run time, which means it’s accessible to more novice theater-goers.
- The show features several mild sexual references related to puberty. (Most went over my well-informed 11-year-old’s head.) Use your judgment for your family.
- I found it a bit odd and unsettling when one character delves into stalker behavior and this is presented as humorous rather than horrifying.
- Part of what makes the show so fun is performers interact with audience members and some audience members are even called onto the stage. If you have any stage-shy members in the family, you might want to make a note of it with the box office before seeing the show.
- The theater is fairly small giving all seats a good view of the stage.
- The lobby has concessions and snacks; expect a very long line at the ladies' restroom.
- Arrive early to find parking in historic downtown Issaquah. Many restaurant choices are within easy walking distance of the theater.
If you go...
Where: Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah, and Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett