“Putnam” is seriously F-U-N-N-Y

By Carrie Moore

If anyone ever needed an example of how entertaining a show at the Black Hills Playhouse (BHP) can be, look no further than the second production of the summer: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” It’s H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S, C-H-A-R-M-I-N-G and F-U-N. (OK, but seriously, you had to of known that was coming, right?)

The play has everything it needs to be successful – sharp, witty humor expertly delivered, tension, mockery and emotion. It also had a few things I didn’t know I needed – two gay dads, a crotchety man with a lactose issue and Jesus. Who knew!

The play begins with moderator and top real estate agent Rona Lisa Peretti (Emily Cherry) getting things in order for the big competition, reliving her big moment from the third Putnam County Spelling bee, where she correctly spelled “syzygy” to take the win. Soon, the the six contestants arrive to the bee, all singing about their anticipation and nerves. 

Shortly after the opening song, it gets real interesting. You see, there are chairs set up for 10, but only six actors on stage. That’s right – you, the audience, gets involved. Four members from the audience are called up to the stage to participate in the spelling bee. And yours truly was one of those lucky four. *Cue the flashback to when I was five and my mom had to come up to the stage and take me away when I was too scared dance at my ballet recital.* I will say, it’s a great way to make the show different each night — new spellers, words and bios. (I’ll be taking in another showing just to see how different the play is from opening night. I can’t wait!)

As each speller comes up to the microphone, we learn more about them, through little bios Peretti reads and flashbacks. 

There’s Chip Tolentino (Cole Kennedy), a Boy Scout who has a sash full of patches, but is a little intimidated by girls and has an, uh, unfortunate incident; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Miranda Robinson), who has a pretty pronounced lisp, two gay dads and probably an ulcer from all of the stress put on her by her fathers; Olive Ostrovsky (Josey Miller), a shy, timid girl who spends a lot of time reading her dictionary; Marcy Park (Justis Drakes), a highly intelligent young lady who comes from a nearby parochial school; William Barfee (Austin Vetter), whose name is constantly mispronounced and spells words with his “magic foot”; and Leaf Coneybear (Branden Osero), who looks like he just came out of the forest and into the school, complete with an awesome cat blanket as a cap and lightsaber as an accessory item. While Coneybear took third place at his own qualifying bee, the first two winners had to go to a Bat Mitzvah — score for him! 

We quickly learn that these kids are here to win, not make friends. There’s intimidation tactics done to ward off other competitors — even the four of us just there for a good time! It was fun to be incorporated into the play by the other actors.

We also meet Douglas Panch (a hilarious Jeff Kingsbury), official word pronouncer who is returning from a hiatus, from which Panch says he is in a much better place now. Following Panch, we meet Mitch Mahoney (a somewhat intimidating Darryl d’Angelo Jones), who is helping at the bee as part of his court-mandated community service. His role at the bee was to escort the eliminated spellers off the stage, juice box in hand. And not going to lie, Mitch’s presence made me a bit more scared to spell a word wrong. I don’t want to be bounced out of here by that guy!

Competitors go through rounds and rounds of tough words. Well, some competitors. When it was my turn to go up to the microphone — third of the four audience participants — my bio was read, “Miss Moore is so privileged, she only eats white food.” Hilarious. I was then given the word “Mexican.” You can’t even begin to imagine my relief of an easy word, especially since the speller before me went out on a hard word I had never even heard of. Everyone erupted in laughter as Panch read the definition and used it in a sentence. I spelled the word and went back to my seat to some glaring looks from the other spellers. 

The next audience speller went up to the microphone and spelled “cow,” which made the other spellers erupt in anger, which ensued in song. And yes, the three of us audience spellers even got thrown in the number, making an arm bridge for the actors to run under and even doing a makeshift wave. It was a lot of fun!

The first act flew by, but eventually before intermission, I spelled a word wrong (“cenacle,” the room in which the Last Supper was held. To be honest, at first I heard “Snapple,” a refreshing drink with a fun fact on the lid.), had Mitch hand me my juice box and off I went. (My second bio was that I was the president of the Johnny Cash Fan Club. Did they know I am a fan of Johnny Cash or was it just coincidence? Hmm…)

In the second half, we see the competition increase in difficulty, more competitions get eliminated and real emotions come out.

The BHP’s “Putnam” is directed by Joe Stollenwerk, who perfectly crafted a story about a spelling bee, that’s “much more than a spelling bee.” Through his direction, the audience was able to see a group of misfits doing something they love. I think everyone could resonate with one character or another, whether it be by knowing six languages and always under pressure to perform precisely or maybe as someone who spent a lot of time alone. Those talents and quirks should be celebrated and not hidden. (I should also mention, I could pick out a former elementary school classmate in each of the characters. Carey Guess, who ate glue? Pretty sure he and Leaf are the same person.)

Stollenwerk did a great job guiding his cast. The actors portraying the spellers were spot on. They acted exactly how children would – some more bold than the others, carefree, worried and intimidated. They all had their own special moments and songs – it’s hard to pick out a favorite.

The vocals, under the guidance of music director Vonnie Houchin, were also spectacular. I will admit, I had a up close and personal account of the vocals. On the stage, you can’t hear the music as well as you can in the audience, so the vocals of all the actors really stood out. It was beautiful and astonishing. (So let’s all be thankful I didn’t have to sing!)

I loved how Cherry portrayed Peretti, a kind soul who loves children and wants them to be true to themselves. She even gave me a little wink as I went up to the microphone, which honestly put my nerves at ease. She also came up with all of the on-the-spot bios for the audience spellers – all of which were hysterical. 

Kingsbury was hilarious as Pance, a junior high vice principal — who you know really just wants to be in the high school — and keeps getting a little more agitated with each speller, especially when asked to use words in sentences. 

Jones’ Mitch was an unexpected favorite for me. At his first introduction, I pegged Mitch as a background character or to be use only in intimidation. I never thought he would be used to help show some character backgrounds, or, more importantly, as a supporter for the students who left the spelling bee. With a juice box in hand, he helped the spellers off of that bright stage and back to reality, all with comfort and support. 

Also with my time on the stage, I got a up close view of the set and costumes. 

The set, done by designer Kathy Voecks, looked like we were in an all-too familiar gym. It had the monotone colors of a school gym — bricks painted over with a bland color that can only be described as “school gym beige” — an accent wall with padding and the Putnam County Buffalo mascot logo on it (you know, in case kids ran into it? I never understood the one wall with the padding!), hardwood floors and the proudly displayed sports banners. Except, instead of more common sports like cross country, football or volleyball, it’s water polo, wiffle ball and table tennis. And, according to the banners, 2017 was a banner (pun intended) year for Putnam County. Cross your fingers for back-to-back wins in 2018! I also loved how the posters and banners extended into the audience to make you really feel like you were in the gym and witnessing a real spelling bee. 

The set also came alive with lighting done by Johnathan Allendar-Zivic. The lighting was cleverly used to depict flashbacks or daydreams, show emotion and introduce a special character to the stage — the lighting really made the little moments stand out.

Costumes were also top notch, done by Katie Curry and her spectacular team. Each speller had a specific style — nerdy, preppy; forest — that was believably done. Myself and other audience members even remarked at how the costumes made the actors seem childlike. Miller wore some pretty awesome overalls decorated with puffy paint, which sort of resembled a pair I used to own as a kid. Having believable outfits really made the idea of the cast being kids that much more real, a true accomplishment in itself! 

Leaf Coneybear’s costume has to also be mentioned, because there was a lot to it. I already mentioned the cat blanket as a cape, but there was a shirt made of sewn together ties, a colander as a hat and a sock puppet — which was in my face, I may add. Every time he pulled something out of his cape, I wondered where it was this whole time and how it was hidden. A hilarious bit to his character, and a very well designed costume! 

So if you haven’t already purchased your ticket for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” what are you waiting for? This production will leave you laughing long after you leave the theatre. And maybe even reliving some of your own childhood memories (I was sick the day my school had its spelling bee — I blame Carey Guess).

And if you get the opportunity to go up on stage as one of the spellers, do it. It was intimidating at first, but was a blast. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be up on the BHP stage – do it! Do it!

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs through July 8. Tickets are available at blackhillsplayhouse.com or by calling (605) 255-4141.