Local company Landmark Musical Theatre’s current production is Tony Best Book winner “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a bright, lighthearted musical with lots of humor and a healthy heaping of audience interaction. An exploration of childhood, parental expectations and individuality, the musical’s Betta cast and its lovable, quirky characters stole the show at San Francisco’s Children’s Creativity Center.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” takes place at the final round of — you guessed it — the 25th annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, where six young elementary-aged spellers are ready to compete for the first place prize of $200. As the bee progresses, the spellers take turns describing their spelling strategies and various familiar, personal challenges. Through simultaneously competing against and forming friendships with the other children, each speller comes out of this year’s competition with meaningful — or at least, humorous — takeaways.
A significant contributor to the musical’s fun is its use of audience participation. Before the show begins, audience members can sign up to be brought onto stage as additional spellers in the bee. Before the competition starts, four members are chosen, given their own competitor numbers and made part of the show. Throughout the first act, cast members guide the new volunteer spellers to interact with the other spellers, move around and dance as part of the script and choreography.
Volunteer spellers are called up to take part in the competition and are strategically given comically easy or difficult words, with one speller being eliminated each round. This delightfully effective merging of the on-stage and off-stage worlds greatly elevates audience engagement; the show’s humor is increased significantly as audience members laugh from both sides of the experience.
The musical also tastefully addresses multiple childhood struggles by injecting just the right amount of seriousness into its feel-good story. Some notable speller backstories include those of Leaf Coneybear (Alicia Hurtado), the underdog speller from a big family who makes fun of him by calling him dumb; Logainne SchwartzandGrubeniere (Tosca Maltzman), whose overbearing dads go so far as to encourage her to sabotage another speller in order to win; and Olive Ostrovsky (Bekah Broas), a reserved, soft-spoken girl who made friends with her dictionary at a young age to cope with having largely absent parents.
Although the musical is meant to be fun and cheerful — and is undoubtedly so — it introduces a sense of realness and depth to the plot by including these characters’ important stories. While the show obviously exaggerates its characters and writing for entertainment purposes, audiences still immediately feel that the musical’s characters are full and well-rounded.
Hands down, the cherry on top of the entire production is the wonderful cast. When the show begins, one of the first standout indicators that the night will be an enjoyable one is the adult actors’ remarkable ability to easily exude such youthful energy and childlike brightness. The cast’s mannerisms and speech reflect those of elementary-school students unbelievably well, portraying their deep understanding of what the world looks like through the eyes of a 10-year-old. Each actor’s capacity to bring their drastically different characters to life is evidence of incredible casting.
It is obvious that the cast puts lots of effort and thought into their roles in order to emulate such bright innocence, but their performances are equally effective as they are effortless. Standout performances come from Alicia Hurtado as Leaf Coneybear, William Rhea as William Barfee and Tosca Maltzman as Logainne SchwartzandGrubeniere, but everyone in the cast demonstrates substantial talent. These outstanding performances bring additional magic to the production, taking the musical to a whole new level of quality.
Guaranteed to make you laugh, Landmark Musical Theater’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” guarantees a good time. Immensely fun and lively, the only way to experience an even more enjoyable theatrical evening is by signing up to be a speller — which is highly encouraged!
Joy Diamond covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].