Review: Zach Academy’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Young performer program shows Austin’s acting future is bright

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is the first musical put on by Zach Academy, the Zach Theatre’s private performing arts education program for Austin’s burgeoning youth talents, and a charming indication of what to expect from the future of Austin theatre.

The play centers on six young spelling bee participants and the three adults running the competition: nine uniquely bizarre individuals total, brought together by their shared love of spelling. Over the course of the bee, their various passions, struggles, and ambitions are revealed with suitably theatrical panache and more than a hint of comedy.

This version of the musical (book by Rachel Sheinkin, music by William Finn) wastes no time bringing the audience to Putnam County. From the moment audience members enter the Zach Theatre, they’re immediately greeted by the sense that they’re attending an important community event. Banners celebrating athletic victories by Putnam County teams decorate the lobby, and the immersion only deepens inside the theatre proper, where Helper Bees stand ready to answer questions and a sponsorship sign from Putnam County Optometrists hangs prominently alongside the stage.

One of the most fun elements of Putnam County Spelling Bee is the four randomly selected audience members who become unwitting participants in the competition.
It’s an effective choice, as one of the most fun elements of Putnam County Spelling Bee is the four randomly selected audience members who become unwitting participants in the competition until they’re inevitably eliminated and escorted offstage by begrudging “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Ruth Waiwaiole). During the performance I attended, at least, all four were nearly as committed to the bit as the performers themselves, giving each spelling attempt their full effort and attention. And for their part, the improvised word definitions and example sentences provided by spelling bee hosts Rona Lisa Perretti (Aria Lee) and Vice Principal Panch (Cameron Redwine) were hilariously unhelpful (perhaps best exemplified when a participant tasked with spelling “cow” asked to hear it used in a sentence, to which Redwine replied with thin-lipped impatience: “Spell ‘cow’”).

But it is, of course, the scripted contestants who are the stars of the show. Putnam asks a lot of its cast, from audience interactions during pre-show and intermission to kinetic choreography to whip-quick improvisations – all while also slowly unraveling the interior worlds of its child protagonists to reveal shades of private hardship. Yet each young performer handles their role with veteran confidence. Camden Packer’s hormone-fueled Chip Tolentino is a true everyboy, whether he’s trying to hide his “Unfortunate Erection,” flirting with the girl who caused it, or pouting about being eliminated. Luciana Marinari brings young activist Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere’s stubborn self-confidence to full bear without ever betraying the insecurities that simmer underneath. As Marcy Park, Alexandra Watson proves herself a multihyphenate threat in acrobatic showpiece “I Speak Six Languages,” while Chloe Van De Graaf as latchkey kid Olive Ostrovsky (joined by Redwine and Alexandra Guerrero as her parents) harmonizes beautifully on a delicate rendition of “The I Love You Song.” Blakeney Mahlstedt brings sweet pathos to Leaf Coneybear, a home-schooled runner-up in her qualifying bee who got into the county competition on a technicality and wonders if she’s smart enough to be there. And Wilkes Goodner’s turn as William Barfée (pronounced “bar-FAY”) had my actor husband’s admiration on the way home for his full-bodied and full-time attention to physicality.

This is a show imbued throughout with infectious joy and energy, from Alana Anthony’s props and costumes (especially Leaf’s light-up butterfly wings) to Jen Young Mahlstedt’s clever choreography (especially in raucous highlight "Pandemonium," which included a dancing panda). Some of the emotional downturns feel like they could have hit a little harder – harmonies aside, “The I Love You Song” certainly would have benefited from more physical interaction between Olive and her parental apparitions – and there’s an argument to be made that director Josh Wechsler’s apparent focus on the show’s levity comes at the expense of showcasing its deceptive emotional depth.

Ultimately, however, there’s little to complain about here and a lot to congratulate, like the joyous atmosphere Zach Academy’s Putnam brought to the fall air that day. With young talents like these in our midst, Austin theatre’s future is in good hands.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Topfer Stage at the Zach Theatre
Student Production Series

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