We All Survive Fourth Grade: MCA Program Produces ‘Spelling Bee’ Musical
The one-act musical narrated the efforts of six elementary school-aged contestants striving to prove their worth at a local spelling bee, providing sensitive insights into the pandemonium of pre-adolescence.
February 14 was opening night for the Media, Culture, and the Arts Program’s spring production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Not an actual spelling bee, the quirky musical ran for four performances from Thursday through Saturday under the professional direction of Misti B. Wills and the musical direction of associate professor of musical theater Virginia Hart Pike. The show entertained audiences with brilliant casting, surprising humor, and nightly improvisation.
The one-act musical narrates the efforts of six elementary school-aged contestants striving to prove their worth at a local spelling bee, providing sensitive insights into the pandemonium of pre-adolescence, with the promise that the challenges of growing up help us to do exactly that—grow.
The cast comprised nine King’s students who brought to life 13 characters, plus alumnus Brittin Ward (MCA ’18) making a surprise appearance. Four audience members also joined the cast nightly; with no coaching, they supplemented the cast members onstage as contestants until they legitimately misspelled a word. Meanwhile, Ann Marie Hogan (MCA ’21) as fifth-grade political crusader Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre prompted the guest contestants to participate in simple choreography, Harrison Chapman (RTS ’22) as returning spelling bee champion Chip Tolentino threw candy into the audience, and Benjamin Cook (FIN ’20) danced a soft shoe as the grubby, misunderstood William Barfée. Micah Long (HUM ’21) stole the show as Vice Principal Panch, the deadpan judge of the bee responsible for reading barbed, sarcastic definitions to contestants.
For all of the nerf guns, piggyback rides, kick lines, satire, improvised insults, example sentences, and misspellings, Anna Hopson (MCA ’22) brought out the heart of the show with her role as Rona Lisa Peretti, the motherly host of the bee. Peretti observes of fourth grade, “It’s a hard age for girls, and boys,” but we all survive it and are better because of it. Director Wills elaborated on this theme In her “Notes to the Audience”:
In the pressure cooker of competition, deep struggles are revealed. Each speller has something they must overcome: parental pressures, shyness, economic hardship, absent parents, loneliness, and raging hormones to name a few. The spelling bee becomes the refinement fire where each character is forced to “concentrate on winning” while facing their own battles of self-esteem and performance anxiety. While laughing alongside the familiar adolescent combat zone, we also witness true character transformations.
Caitlin Smith (MCA ’19), who played timid runner-up Olive Ostrovsky, reflected, “While this show was very fun, it also exposed some real pressures and pain that people experience. It was amazing to play both the fun and the real, and I hope that audience members felt both and were moved by our production, because I know we (all of us in the cast) surely were.”
Dr. Henry Bleattler, chair of the MCA Program and executive producer of Spelling Bee concurred. “Picking a show for our students to perform is never easy, but choosing Spelling Bee, with its focus on overachieving students, issues of identity and self-image, and the burden of adult expectations made a lot of sense—especially as it was being performed in the City Room! Our hope is that the cast, crew, and audience walked away from the show reminded that they are of value for who they are and not for what they do.”