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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Middlebury College Musical Theatre’s ‘Spelling Bee’ generates buzz, laughter in Wilson Auditorium

The “Spelling Bee” cast brought a lively and humorous energy to
Wilson Hall this past weekend.
The “Spelling Bee” cast brought a lively and humorous energy to Wilson Hall this past weekend.

Once the home of Middlebury’s gym, Wilson Hall was a fitting venue for Middlebury College Musical Theater’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical in the form of a spelling bee in a school gymnasium. Following a cast of quirky spellers in their quest for victory, the student-run show utilized four audience volunteers to round out the cast of spellers, spelling words ranging from “cow” to “lysergic acid diethylamide” in between musical numbers. 

The show began with former bee champion and bee host Rona Lisa Peretti, played by Acadia Klepeis ’24, introducing her favorite parts of the spelling bee, before the cast launched into the opening number, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which introduces each contestant. 

“Spelling Bee” came together in just eight weeks, with six hours of weekly rehearsals split between vocal work with music director Gregory Marcinik ’25.5, scene practice and blocking and choreography sessions. 

Jonathan Mount ’25.5 served not only as director, choreographer and lighting operator for the performance alongside other student techs, but was also the universal understudy, as Klepeis announced at the close of the Saturday night performance. 

While Mount had previously directed a musical as a high school senior, taking charge of every step of the process was a new challenge. Ultimately, after learning how to cue the light system, Mount decided to take on the technical transitions himself. 

“By the time the show rolled around, I kind of decided I wanted to run the cues since the timing is very specific, and no one knew the show better than I did timing wise,” he said.

Costuming and actors’ choices in physicality on stage aided characterization. With a voluminous blue tutu and bike helmet, Anna Matsuzawa ’27 careened onstage as the enthusiastic speller Leaf Coneybear. Julia Levin ’24 earnestly delivered as Logan Schwarzandgrubenierre, a pint-sized social justice warrior with a prominent lisp and boundless energy. The presence of audience members scattered among the two rows of contestants seated on the left side of the stage added to the hilarity. 

Natalie Byers ’27 played Marcy Park, an overachieving national-level speller on a journey to realize she’s not “all business.” With a Catholic school uniform and straight-faced delivery, Byers set a tone at the beginning of the show for Park’s focused presence.

The only character without a singing part, Sophie Larocque ’26 provided dry wit and stellar delivery as Vice Principal Panch, the bee’s word pronouncer. She read wildly inappropriate example sentences with a straight face as contestants asked for definitions, the word’s use in a sentence and other classic spelling bee questions with each round.

“When the audience is laughing, it was so hard not to laugh along with them,” Larocque said.

For example, as audience member Cassie Elish ’25 was asked to spell ‘intolerant,’ its use in a sentence was, ‘We’re not intolerant, we’re racist.’

“Spelling Bee” was Larocque’s first musical at Middlebury, and she appreciated the agency the cast had in developing their roles.

“I'm very thankful I did it. My favorite thing about it is that it was all student-run,” she said. “[Mount] had our blocking and what he wanted the bones to be but he let us make a lot of choices. And I think that really allowed everyone to develop their character in a way that suited their style.”

“It's been such a pleasure to see them from week two first reading the scripts being like 

‘Who the heck are these characters?’ to then week eight or nine and just seeing them shine on the stage,” Mount said. 

The cast made the show personal to Middlebury by sharing made-up fun facts about each audience volunteer as they approached the microphone to spell their word. One contestant was described as being responsible for creating the hole in the wall of the Ross complex on Halloween night. None of the audience members were picked beforehand, according to Mount. 

“Pandemonium” was a predictably high-energy number, where the cast rose out of their seats to perform dynamic choreography, including one moment in which all contestants joined hands in a large circle and ran around, as Chip Tolentino, played by Davis Guyton ’25, crooned into the standing microphone like a rock singer. Flashing colorful lights added to the energy and the chaotic movements. 

While the lighting and choreography was simple, it was well-executed to enhance the storyline. Every time Leaf Coneybear spelled a word, she entered into a trance and stared into the distance as a bright white spotlight illuminated her. Flashbacks were cued with light transitions that darkened around a smaller vignette.

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In “Magic Foot,” Quinn Donaldson ’26.5 had a solo dance break as William Barfé, grapevining, tapping and otherwise sliding across the stage in his bright yellow Converse to emphasize his character’s unique spelling technique. The end of the song brings the full cast and audience volunteers together to dance along with a classic kick-line and conga line. 

The number is one of Mount’s favorites to watch as a director. 

“I love the choreography in that number; Quinn does a fantastic job,” Mount said. “It's so funny to watch the audience volunteers try to dance to that song because it's such rigid, fast choreography.” 

Small recurring gags in the show let the audience in on the joke that despite the cast being college students, they are largely playing middle schoolers. Comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, played by Luna Simon-Gonzalez ’24.5, hands out juice boxes as consolation prizes to each eliminated contestant. 

There are several instances of engagement with the audience as cast members venture out into the aisles. Act two begins with Chip Tolentino passing out concessions to the audience, mourning his lapse in concentration due to an uncontrollable reaction to Leaf Coneybear’s older sister Marigold in “My Unfortunate Erection,” a number that had audience members laughing as Guyton belted out various laments about his physical condition, hidden by a hat during Act one.

As the contestants advanced through the rounds and the audience members were all ultimately eliminated, staging played with time to accelerate and slow down the pace of spelling. At times, cast members cycled so quickly through the microphone at the front of the stage that they were not able to speak a full word, with swirling colorful lights that added to the effect of time being sped up. In other moments, the lights dimmed and Laroque and Donaldson slowed their speech to the opposite end, playing with the pacing of a bee to comedic effect. 

Mars Romero ’27 created a distinct presence for Olive Ostrovsky by hunching her shoulders and clenching her fists to affect a nervous, insecure energy that matched Ostrovsky’s shy personality. As Ostrovsky and Barfé befriended each other, this nervous, tightly-held posture relaxed, especially during a spontaneous dance number between the duo in the second act, which featured two spotlights panning to frame the actors. 

“I love the lighting for that and the whole ballet,” Mount said.

The show’s ending was met with a standing ovation from an audience of Middlebury students, community members and families of cast members

 “I love that we had lots of students, faculty, general public. I loved hearing all the laughter echo through the auditorium. It just brought a smile to my face,” Mount said.

Editor’s note: Acadia Klepeis ’24 is an Arts and Culture Editor.

Olivia Mueller

Olivia Mueller '24 (she/her) is a News Editor.

Previously an Arts and Culture editor, Olivia is an International Politics and Economics major with a Spanish minor. Outside of the Campus, she is a spin instructor for YouPower, an avid runner and hiker, and a member of the Middlebury Mischords a cappella group.