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I recall as a girl in the 7th grade, my favorite subject was spelling, and I loved spelling bees. Who knew I would grow up to be a journalist?
But our 7th grade spelling bees were not nearly as much fun as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the Tony Award-winning play at Brown Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
The setting, however, looked remarkably similar: school gymnasium, complete with basketball goal (put to good use) and the concomitant stage, where on a recent night the musicians who performed the accompaniment for the 18 songs in this one-act musical were set up. The set is so realistic that even before the spelling begins, you are transported to that time and place long ago.
With all the talent in this production, it's hard to know where to start, but certainly Katie Vohwinkel as the painfully politically-correct daughter of a gay couple sets the bar high for the rest of our student speller-actors from the outset. With every lisp, you cringe and laugh at the thame, er, same time, and her nervous ticks are both exaggerated and perfectly suited to her character.
Indeed, this play is a spoof on all the things that make these pubescent middle-schoolers peculiar, rather, unique. To identify the personality disorders of our half-dozen young geniuses would take a whole team of psychiatrists. Much to our delight, we're not here to analyze, but to enjoy, and that is exactly what we do.
For a university production, this play is amazingly professional. There is control in the out-of-control, poignancy in the comedy and beauty in the ugliness.
These actors not only have the convincing ability to become 10 or so years younger than they really are, but the skill to make the unnatural look natural. Spelling with a foot, for example, is one character's way of getting around the rules and the inspiration for the song "The Magic Foot".
Skyler Brown as Mitch the comfort counselor (thanks to a community service mandate) is both somber and hilarious. Brown also plays two other adult characters, and is definitely a strong, silent counterpoint for all the mayhem. Without his absolute stoicism, focus sometimes would be difficult.
Currie Terrell and Philip Eggers as William Barfee (foot-speller) and Leaf Coneybear (Tourette's/Asberger's/ADHD) will make your sides ache with laughter. Catholic-school-jumper-clad Katy Sink as Marcy, the overachiever, wears the holier-than-thou smirk like a pro, and Olive, played by Kimberly Weinkle, is convincing as the lonely, sweet, smart kid whose best friend is the dictionary.
Not to be overlooked is Mark Schwab as Chip, in full Boy-Scout regalia, whose "unfortunate erection" (from the name of his solo) unhinges his hope to become the spelling bee winner. Yep, this play is definitely PG-bordering-on-R.
There are also adults in this play - the big-fish-in-Putnam-pond Rona Lisa (Elizabeth May), who after winning the 11th annual bee grew up to become a famous realtor, and anger-management program graduate Douglas Panch, (Thomas Mendolia) who, despite his attempts to rise above his own personality defects, cannot seem to be promoted to principal.
As in most Putnam County productions, three volunteers from the audience are drafted to participate in the spelling of the most obscure words you've never heard.
This production came together like letters from the mouth of a well-studied contestant, seemingly magically, but obviously with a lot of work behind it. If there are any complaints, it's that the live music, wonderful as it was, overpowered the actors' voices at times.
In a word, UNCG Theatre's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is awesome. A-W-E-S-O-M-E. Awesome.
It runs through February 6. See the sidebar for details.