Could I have the definition, please?
Armed with sweaty palms, thick-rimmed glasses, lisps and overall nerdy mannerisms, UNCG Theatre takes on a play that dares to delve into the awkward hilarity of middle school and the cut-throat competiveness of a spelling bee.
The 25 th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a comedic musical by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin, centers around a fictional spelling bee that offers six kids the chance to shine, and more importantly a chance to fit in — even if it’s in an awkward niche.
The competitors: a Boy Scout, a lisping activist, a perfect knowit-all, a cocky nerd, an eccentric outcast and a shy sweetheart.
Each competitor has her own weird quirks and mannerisms, all of which the audience can easily identify as a reason why the kid doesn’t fit in with normal students. The actors do a fantastic job of portraying a unique set of characters that really do remind us of our middle school days, whether by laughing at them or sympathizing with them.
Actor Katie Vohwinkel, who plays Logainne, a friendly activist who has two dads and a lisp, remarkably creates a character that the audience can’t help but love. Vohwinkel keeps the audience laughing as she side-licks the corners of her mouth and squints her face. “May I have the definition, pleezth?” Even while Vohwinkel is singing she maintains her lisp and awkward quirks.
And the audience can’t help but feel sorry for Chip Tolentino (Mark Schwab), who innocently gets an erection from a girl in the audience and inevitably loses the bee because of the embarrassment. We can see the terror in Schwab’s eyes as he is made to take centerstage for his turn at a word. It is a moment lamented by the musical number “My Unfortunate Erection.”
The set, designed by Derrick Vanmeter, is a middle school gym.
Vanmeter effectively transformed the small stage by creating a floor that resembles a section of a basketball court. Behind the competitors is a line of gym windows and above them hovers a basketball net and backboard. The audience can almost immediately smell the sweat when they sit down.
The Brown Building Theatre’s small space was a perfect choice as it creates a more personal environment for the audience.
The play is interactive, so four names from the audience are called over the microphone to join the spelling bee. As announcer Rona (Elizabeth May) calls out the names we are transferred back to our middle school desks as we sink and repeat to ourselves, “Please don’t call on me, please don’t call on me, please don’t call on me.”
The unfortunate souls then compete in the bee alongside the actors until they misspell a word, in which case the resounding BUZZ is heard and the remaining competitors sing goodbye. Of course, including the audience in the action relies on the finesses of improv by the other actors, which actors May and Thomas Mendolia (Vice Principal Panch) execute perfectly.
The two are the announcers for the bee and easily ad-lib with the audience members, providing laughs by playing off what the new competitors are wearing or what they say or ask for within the bee.
Being a musical, the show is also filled with songs, both funny and sincere. Among the musical numbers are songs “My Friend the Dictionary,” “I Speak Six Languages” and “I’m Not That Smart.” Each song allows the audience to laugh at the special quirks of each character, as well as discover more about their sometimes sad background. Providing the music is a small band that sits in the background, which allows even the music to become a visual part of the show and set.
Overall, The 25 th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a sweet and goofy show that teaches us about self-acceptance while letting us laugh at the pains of middle school.
UNCG Theatre will perform The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee through Sunday at the Brown Building Theatre, 402 Tate St. For tickets or more information call 336.334.4849 or visit www.uncg.edu/the/.
From left, Mark Schwab, Katy Sink, Philip Eggers, Kimberly Weinkle, Currie Terrell and Katie Vohwinkel in UNCG’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (courtesy photo).