REVIEW: ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ Delights the Senses


Rafael Alfonso, Content Editor

Director Jack Cirillo and his cast turned “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” from an okay musical to a great one. On its own, the musical is a decent comedy with some standout moments, but the actors and crew really injected life into the show. I don’t know if I’ll go out of my way to watch another production of it, but I am glad I watched Marshall’s rendition. 

Plot: 3.5/5

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” follows six students (and four audience members) competing in the titular spelling bee for a $200 prize. It is jam-packed full of humor from all the characters’ quirky personalities and the writing’s willingness to go political or vulgar (like having an entire song literally titled “My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament)”). 

At times, though, the humor felt too frequent or like it was trying too hard to be funny; meanwhile, the writing made the characters more like caricatures rather than relatable people (which, I will say, is a reasonable writing decision with so many characters). However, the cast’s phenomenal acting still made these otherwise flat elements interesting and impactful. 

I heard the audience gasp when Schwarzy’s (played by Sierra Lutz) father (Gavin Spiewalk) poured soda on the floor to disadvantage one of the other competitors. They also audibly reacted when Leaf (also played by Spiewalk) was eliminated from the bee after misspelling chinchilla. In fact, despite my critique of the show’s constant comedy, I found myself genuinely invested in the winner of this fictional spelling bee by its end and was sad whenever someone was eliminated. 

What really made “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” stand out to me, though, was the music. The show uses leitmotifs (repeated melodies) to highlight certain character moments and to make the plot feel more cohesive. For example, the melody of “Pandemonium” often plays when a character is about to be eliminated from the bee or feels they’re being treated unfairly—ideas that are explored during the actual “Pandemonium” number.     

The show also taps into varying musical styles—from waltz to balladic to jazz and more—meaning there’s practically at least one song for everyone to enjoy. 

Favorite Songs: “Magic Foot,” “The I Love You Song” and “Pandemonium”

Performance: 4/5

Each member of the cast brought brilliant physicality and vocals to the show. I never caught any actor out of character, with everyone reacting to what was happening onstage with the same energy that they delivered their lines with. The cast also adapted well to the audience volunteers, interacting with them in character the whole time, making sure they knew what was about to happen and keeping the show moving even when the volunteers didn’t act exactly as the script expected. 

I also commend the cast for the different voices they used throughout the show. Barfee (Noah Ritchie) only has one working nostril, something Ritchie brought out in a nasally voice that he maintained both in dialogue and in singing. Lutz did the same with Schwarzy’s lisp, which made her lispless line at the end of the show about her speech therapy being a success all the more satisfying. 

Some actors also played multiple characters and differentiated between them not just with a costume change but a change in vocals. Spiewalk had a goofy, almost dopey way of speaking when he played Leaf that he lost completely when he became more intense and serious as Schwarzy’s father. 

In terms of singing, Rachelle Snyder as Rona, Jacob Cremeans as Mitch and George Kinley as Chip stood out among an already talented set of voices. Snyder hit some of the highest notes in the show and had an excellent vibrato that really shone during ensemble numbers. Cremeans’ own range and vibrato also really blew me away, and his singing really made a character that could have easily been overshadowed by the more central characters stand out. Kinley, on the other hand, brought a truly impressive amount of emotion and different vocal techniques to “My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament).”

Favorite Dance Numbers: “Pandemonium,” “Magic Foot,” Barfee and Olive’s (Nikki Riniti) dance in “Second”

Production: 4.5/5

By far, what dazzled me the most about Marshall’s rendition of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was the lighting. The show flashes back and forward in time a lot— sometimes slowing or stopping it entirely—to develop its characters, and the lighting in those scenes made them easy to follow. 

The lighting was also aesthetically beautiful. During “Pandemonium,” multicolored lights dance across the stage to highlight the chaos of the scene and the characters’ emotions. In “Magic Foot,” the lighting is less dramatic, but the star-like projections on the floor during that number do create a fitting magical feeling. 

A real triumph of the production, though, was when time slows down during “Spelling Montage.” To the actors’ credit, they did an excellent job of sounding like they were being fast-forwarded in real life; however, the change in lighting and all the time-related sound effects (like the stereotypical slow-mo sound) really made the scene make sense.

Additionally, the set was well-designed and really made me feel like I was back in my own middle school gym, complete with a fire alarm and an exit sign on the fake wall of the set. It was also very clever to make the band a part of the set by having them on the stage in the back like a real middle school band. 

Favorite Costume Items: Leaf’s cape and helmet and Olive’s sparkly pink shoes 

Total: 12/15 | The cast and crew really made the musical for me and compensated for some of its written shortcomings.