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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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‘Spelling Bee’ is E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-T!

Contributed by Angel Jordan
Vibrant Colors Collective showcased their first full production, “The 25th Annual Spelling Bee,” last weekend at Shanley Pavilion.

The rosy lenses of nostalgia often color our childhood days with pleasant hues of innocence and vitality. They were, colloquially speaking, the good old days.

Of course, that view on youth is incomplete. In “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (yes, the show’s title is that long), the six children competing are weighed down by the ambitions and doubts of the adults around them. Sequences of letters, usually inconsequential, are now a matter of life and death.

Even the bee’s host and former contestant, Rona Lisa Peretti (wonderfully played by Communication sophomore Kennedy Naseem), is swept away by the energy of the event. The show opens with a flashback to her winning the Third Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee with the word “syzygy.”

The first two musical numbers present the stakes and rules of the bee to the audience. Ms. Peretti introduces each spelling contestant with the zeal of a sports commentator:

Last year’s winner Chip Tolentino (Communication senior Ethan Cheng) comes forward to defend his crown. Primary school activist and youngest competitor Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Communication junior Maya Slaughter), makes her bee debut. Last-minute contestant Leaf Coneybear (SESP sophomore Malik Middleton) enters as an underdog. 

Perpetually grumpy and congested William Barfée (Communication sophomore Oliver Tam) returns after an allergy-related “tragic setback” at last year’s bee. Intimidating transfer from Virginia Marcy Park (Communication freshman Maya Palacios) enters the district bee after placing ninth in last year’s nationals. Peretti has no storyline constructed for Olive Ostrovsky (Bienen sophomore Elena Oliveira), a shy young girl who is a first-time contestant.

Much like athletes, some of the children have unique spelling techniques. Barfée draws out each letter on the floor with his foot as he spells, and Olive whispers the letters into her hand before she makes her official move.

The musical score, written by William Finn, illustrates the competitive tension and childlike excitement with the sounds of woodwinds, strings, rumbling drums and occasionally, the triangle. The gentle curiosity of the instrumentation creates a unique sonic profile for the show. There’s a warmth to it that soothes the ear, drawing you into the action of the show and the characters’ desires. 

While the young contestants are filled with awe as they enter the bee, by the second number (“The Spelling Rules/My Favorite Moment of the Bee 1”) they impatiently rush through the logistics, practically raring to go.

In addition to the six contestants, three real audience members are chosen to join the bee. The judges give these participants simpler words, causing mayhem among the main spellers who bring the bee to a halt during “Pandemonium,” a hilarious musical temper tantrum.

When each speller leaves the competition, kaleidoscopic colors light the stage as the remaining spellers sing a goodbye. For a show with a minimal set, this change is akin to the walls crumbling down. Lighting designer and Weinberg sophomore Katherine Li also utilized multi-colored lights during flashbacks, musical numbers and chimerical moments (wildly fanciful, highly unrealistic).

During the show, you forget that you’re watching a cast of twenty-somethings. And with no scene breaks or set changes (except for a short intermission), this was quite the feat. The performers commit to their roles every second they’re on stage, adding in small interactions with each other and the audience that brought the musical’s world to life.

The bee twists and turns in unexpected ways. Leaf spells his way through the names of several obscure South American rodents in a trancelike state, building his confidence along the way. Incumbent winner Chip Tolentino leaves in defeat, distracted by Leaf’s ravishingly gorgeous sister Marigold (“played” by someone in the audience –– me, in this case!). Marcy Park incites the second coming of Jesus (also played by Ethan Cheng) to help her forfeit the competition. The show is excellently paced, constantly keeping the audience on their toes.

Each child goes through their own transformation in the course of the bee, learning more about themselves and rebelling against the confines of familial and societal expectations. When Logainne’s father tries to sabotage Barfée by pouring soda on the floor, she watches in regret as he struggles through his next word. Afterwards, she wipes the floor with a napkin, declaring that she can win on her own. 

Directed by Communication sophomore Walter Todd and produced by Communication sophomore Nic Lam, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a window into the glories and small tragedies of childhood, a time when everything is new. The musical recognizes that the beauty of childhood is not that life was perfect –– it wasn’t. Rather, it’s the opportunity for self-exploration. As a child, you do not know who you will be, but you do know who you are. 

“Spelling Bee” highlights the importance of understanding yourself, a lesson still relevant as we grow up. At the end of the show, the contestants return as adults and explain how their lives have been going since the bee. While it was not the most consequential day of their lives, the lessons they learned stay with the spellers years later.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jahariia

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