School of Drama’s most recent production is a w-i-n-n-e-r
Proving that winning isn’t everything and that losing is not the same as ‘bee’-ing a loser, Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama presented The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Feb. 17–26 at the New Hazlett Theater. The musical follows 10 spelling bee competitors, four of whom are audience members, as they battle to win the titular competition.
This light-hearted yet poignant musical centers on the pivotal moments where the contestants must stand and spell or go home. Told through the medium of flashbacks interwoven throughout the competition, the audience learns about the life and times of these eclectic participants and hosts.
The costumes and stage set the tone of the story. The cast wore patches on their jeans, sparkly barrettes, Lipsmackers chapstick necklaces, and Baby-G watches — one cast member even had a Saturn-ring retainer in her mouth. The set itself was bright and cartoon-ish, with colorful signs advertising different Putnam Valley events.
The costumes and set matched the characters’ vibrant, quirky performances. As the story began, the actors started by playing exaggerated stereotypes of their characters. Then, as the story progressed, they narrowed in on the very real insecurities, hopes, and dreams that the characters faced.
Mitch Mahoney, played by Donovan Mitchell, arrived on stage dressed in baggy jeans, a white tank top, and excessive jewelry. Mahoney was the bee’s official “Comfort Counselor.” He handed out juice boxes to the losing contestants. Audience participation was a large component of “Spelling Bee,” and Mahoney seamlessly integrated the audience into the story when he began the bee by leading everyone, including the audience, in reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
Chip Tolentino, played by Pattrick Dillon Curry in Friday’s performance, was a minor-league baseball player and last year’s spelling bee champion. He wound up before spelling his words. Leaf Coneybear, played by Darren Bluestone, only took third at his regional bee, but made it to county finals because the first- and second-placed spellers had to go to a Bar Mitzvah that day.
Logainne Schartzandgrubenierre, played by Kailie Torres, wanted the voting age to be 10, was pro-choice, and was the head of her elementary school’s gay-straight alliance. Marcy Park, played by Gabriel McClinton, claimed to speak six languages. Olive, played by Mimi Gianopulos, read the dictionary in her house on the toilet. Finally William Barfee, played by Kyle Rotter, whose last name is pronounced “Bar-fay,” not “Barf-y,” has a rare mucous-membrane disease and a talent for spelling with his foot.
Spelling Bee is a commentary on life. No one knows the luck of the draw: While one contestant could be given a hard word to spell, another contestant could randomly be assigned an easy word. The spellers complain that the element of luck makes the bee unfair. They erupt in the song “Pandemonium,” singing: “Life is random and unfair/Life is pandemonium/It is such a calamity/Where should we begin?/The best spellers don’t necessarily win.”
When one of the characters misspells a word, she must cope with societal pressures and more directly parental pressures of losing. She sings, “America you hate losers/So do I. I’m a loser, so goodbye.” One realizes that there is more to the musical then spelling. It is about knowing that there are six contestants and only one can win. What about the other five?
Win or lose, the characters must come to terms with their inadequacies and unique quirks and embrace themselves in order to find self-actualization.
Mimi Gianopulos, who played Olive, explained that the process of making Spelling Bee was “really fun, but challenging because [the cast] had to be children with authentic hopes and dreams, not just actors playing children. That was the biggest challenge,” Gianopulos said, “Remembering what it was like to be a child.”
Gianopulos thinks that the charm in Spelling Bee lies in “embracing its simplicity. It is not Shakespeare and that’s okay. The beauty of the production is the children’s wants and needs. It’s beautiful in that simplicity.”