Thomas Holguin/ HIGHALNDER
Thomas Holguin/ HIGHALNDER

You might remember your typical spelling bee competitions from elementary school. You would stand up in front of a microphone, be given a word and then you would have to spell it out and hope you spell it right. Simple, right? Well maybe not for the characters who appear in, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a play which premiered on Oct. 27 by UCR’s Department of Theatre, Film and Digital Production at the University Theatre.

Upon entering, I immediately noticed the setup of the stage: Bright yellow bleachers decorated with dazzling blue ribbons stood at the center. A “Bully Free Zone” sign hung over the left side of the stage and on the right hung a sponsorship sign from the “Putnam Optometrists.” Amongst the crowd, adults young and old filled the empty seats with excited chatter.

The lights dimmed and the spotlight concentrated on a woman wearing a bright pink dress as the play opened with a flashback of the woman, named Rona Lisa Peretti, to a time when she had won the annual spelling bee herself. As the moderator of the spelling bee, Peretti along with the stern vice principal Douglas Panch, began introducing the contestants of the competition. From the charismatic and proud Chip Tolentino (who was the most recent spelling bee champion) to the innocent and lovely Olive Ostrovsky (who was too poor to pay for her admission fee), the cast of characters played by the fantastic group of actors proved to be for an entertaining and hilarious night at the University Theatre.

An interesting feature of the musical was that they had volunteers from the audience compete in the spelling bee with the cast of characters. It proved to be utterly hilarious how the cast interacted with these volunteers, given they had no prior experience on stage with them.

Giselle Austria, a UCR Gluck Fellow, who played Peretti, found that it was a “real treat” working with the cast given the short amount of time to rehearse. Speaking on her experience she says, “The fact that the cast is pretty small and that the nature of the show is light-hearted and joyous made the overall experience positive … a lot of it was spent making each other laugh because our characters are just so ridiculous.”

Austria was not wrong. The characters proved to be hectic, yet lovable given their quirky traits. For example, one of the standouts in the cast was William Barfee (often mispronounced by the characters to much amusement) played by Edward Mendoza. One of his main traits is that he’s too confident in himself which makes him pretty arrogant. It’s no thanks in part to his “magic foot,” a peculiar characteristic of his that allows him to visualize the word he’s spelling by writing it on the floor with his foot.

Thomas Holguin/HIGHLANDER
Thomas Holguin/HIGHLANDER

Mendoza agreed with Barfee’s arrogant nature, but that’s part of the reason he likes to play him so much. “I think Barfee is an oddly endearing character,” Mendoza said. He continued by explaining how “over the course of the spelling bee, you get to see him grow up, and being able to grow up with him is probably my favorite things about his character.”

Indeed, one of the features of the musical was its use of backstory through the use of flashbacks to strengthen the depth of the characters. As the play goes on, the audience gets to intimately learn the history of these characters. They all have their dreams and personal fulfilments and that’s what makes the characters so relatable. One character for example, Leaf Coneybear, is often looked down upon by his peers and his family for not being smart enough to compete in the spelling bee. It is his hope throughout the spelling bee that he will show just how smart he can be by overcoming all odds.

And of course, what would a musical be without the music itself? The striking cast of characters partake in many musical numbers throughout the course of the 90-minute play. From the active group number, “Pandemonium,” which finds the characters lamenting how they’re given difficult words to spell in comparison to others, to the surprisingly touching, “The I Love You Song,” which finds Ostrovsky’s character exploring the history with her family, the musical numbers elevate the already entertaining play to something much more enchanting.

I caught up with the play’s director, Chari Arespacochaga, getting her thoughts on the cast and the first showing of the play. “The actors of ‘Spelling Bee’ were enthusiastic and generous,” she said, “They were eager to explore these characters and create their own versions of them. It’s always a thrill to guide actors in this process of creation and then finally seeing them embody the characters of the show.” As for the first showing of the production, Arespacochaga felt it “was received very warmly. It was great to see the audience laughing and smiling as the show went on.”

Arespacochaga’s words ring true, because if there’s anything that I remember the most from that night, it was the constant smiles and laughter from the audience reacting to the various shenanigans from the cast on stage. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” radiated with a cast of vibrant characters and bombast musical numbers all while being inherently charming and captivating.