What's it about?
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical about a group of very eccentric and multi-faceted elementary school kids competing in...well, the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. There's audience participation, politically aware humor, and an imagined future in which Lin-Manuel Miranda might be President of the United States of America.
What'd I experience?
I got out of work at around half past five, and knowing that I had two hours until the show started, decided to treat myself to a mani/pedi around Hell's Kitchen. I may have caught one or two Pokemon while I got pampered...
My nails officially done, I was supposed to meet my mom at a diner close to the theatre in Long Island City and I wanted us to have time to eat. But as I reached my left hand into my purse to put some money away, the newly painted nail on my ring finger must have gotten snagged on something in my bag, because when I pulled out my hand the polish on that nail was completely messed up. I realized this was a minor issue in the scheme of things, but it was still enough to royally piss me off. I pondered racing back to the salon to have them re-do that one nail, but in a split-second chose against this and headed into the train station instead. The things I do for theatre...
I got on an uptown-bound N train which I was supposed to stay on until Queensboro Plaza before transferring to the 7 train. But what did I do? I managed to miss my stop! In a panic, I got off the train at 36th Avenue and called an Uber. But the Uber took longer than I thought, and when my car did arrive it got stuck in traffic. By the time I got to the diner, by mom and I had to devour our Cobb salad in under 10 minutes before darting to the theatre. Needless to say, I wasn't in the best of moods. I had just spent way too much money on a manicure that ultimately wasn't perfect and on a car ride that took longer than waiting for a train.
We claimed our tickets at the box office, which were purchased separately and assigned to different seats, and entered the theatre. It became clear to us, though, that the house was far from full, so my mom and I ended up breaking the rules and sitting next to each other and in the front row!
I'd always been partial to musicals, but I had barely heard of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee as a show before I took my seat at The Secret Theatre, and I certainly had never listened to the soundtrack. So once again I found myself in the position of an audience member at a theatrical production with no real expectations, a fact which excited me to no end.
Then the competitors were announced, and one by one they entered the stage.
There was Chip Tolentino, Boy Scout and winner of the 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Logainne SchwartzandGrubbenierre, the youngest competitor of the bunch sporting an annoying lisp and a very open mind, Leaf Coneybear, an oddly-dressed but excitable boy who spelled like a person possessed, William Morris Barfee, a confident nerd with a "magic foot" that he used to spell out his words, Marcy Park, a serious girl who reminded me of Wednesday Adams and who was capable of speaking 6 languages, and Olive Ostrovsky, a sweet girl lacking a stable home environment. In addition to these six spellers, four more were selected from the audience to participate in the Bee! Oh, how badly I wished I were one of those people... Among the lucky volunteers were a young man, two young women (one blonde, one brunette), and a little boy who couldn't have been older than 10! They were each given numbers to wear around their necks and were invited to sit alongside the actors. What a fascinating perspective they had!
In the song The Spelling Rules/My Favorite Moment of the Bee, the official rules of the Bee were sung beautifully. There were three main rules:
1) A speller may ask questions about a word's pronunciation, definition, use in a sentence, and language of origin.
2) If a speller starts to spell a word, the speller may start over, but the sequence of letters already spoken may not be changed.
3) If a speller misspells a word, either the Bee's host, Rona Lisa Peretti, or Vice Principal Panch, will ring the bell, and the comfort counselor, Mitch Mahoney, will escort the speller offstage.
Rona was a former Putnam County Spelling Bee champion herself, and Vice Principal Panch was kind of an oddball who provided a lot of comic relief. And Mitch Mahoney, well, he looked like trouble, and was only a comfort counselor because he legally had no other choice thanks to his court-appointed community service.
Olive Ostrovsky was asked to spell her first word, Boanthropy, but before she attempted to spell it, she walked right up to my mother to ask her if she could please not sit in the seat she was sitting in. My mom and I were kind of stunned, and although we were both unsure of how to proceed, I felt a surge of appreciation for theatre that broke the fourth wall and made audience members like us question the appropriate etiquette. Olive broke into a song telling us that she had saved her dad a chair in the front row on the aisle, and I was convinced that my mom was supposed to move to a different seat. Maybe that seat was reserved for the actor playing Olive's father, and in our bid to sit together, my mom and I had disrupted the way the show was written. My mom began to rise, but she was stopped by the man sitting behind us, who I recognized as Richard Mazda, the founder of The Secret Theatre.
The first speller to be disqualified was one of the volunteers and the only man. To his credit, he had a hard word, but he did look pretty bummed at having to hand back his number. The cast broke into a Goodbye song, and Mitch Mahoney handed the poor guy a juice box and ushered him back to his seat.
The brunette volunteer, who was introduced as a person recovering from head-lice (Yikes!), was given the word Mexican, which naturally left the other spellers angered at the sheer unfairness. She asked for a definition, and Vice Principal Panch said something along the lines of, "A native or inhabitant of Mexico. Also an Americanized slang term used to describe people born in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or any other Spanish speaking country." It was like a definition out of Urban Dictionary, and I had to admit it was REAL. The sentence Panch used the word in was equally "real," if not entirely helpful to the speller. But the brunette lady managed to spell the word fine.
Finally the little boy was called up and given the word cow. He couldn't even reach the microphone, but he handled himself fairly professionally as he asked for a definition. The given definition? "Cow." When he asked to have the word used in a sentence, Vice Principal Panch responded with the sentence, "Please spell cow." And the kid did just that, receiving the most massive round of applause given all night.
When the following spellers were given truly challenging words, they burst into a song called Pandemonium about how "life [was] random and unfair," and how they wished they could have been given words as easy to spell as Mexican and Cow.
Eventually the brunette volunteer was disqualified on a super-hard word, after being announced as a person raised by wolves (Again, yikes!). The little boy, too, misspelled a word I couldn't even dream of spelling correctly, after being announced as a person whose favorite television show was Sons of Anarchy. They both took their seats, juice boxes in hand. The blonde volunteer, however, hung in there, to all of our amazement. After spelling two ridiculously difficult words in a row correctly, she was given a word so long and impossible to pronounce that I couldn't process it, and she was finally disqualified. She was escorted offstage in style, with Mitch Mahoney serenading her with a musical prayer that sounded a lot more like a love song to me, him dubbing her "the best-looking babe" of the Bee.
Now, the show continued and a lot happened as the characters spelled words and, of course, someone won the competition. But I want to jump to the end. The kids spoke about how they grew up as a result of having participated in the Bee, and all of their lives seemed to have been bettered by involvement in such a high-pressure competition. Even though the show was so clearly a fictional story with many exaggerated elements, it somehow seemed believable to me that an experience like that would wind up a learning moment.