By Dylan Toolijian
It’s easy to recognize finals season in the Nova Nation—the library is suddenly full on a Friday afternoon, everyone takes his or her Café Nova order “to go,” nobody has any meal points left and it’s impossible to find an outlet anywhere for your computer.
The hardest part about dealing with finals stress is balancing work with play—it can be tough to concentrate on studying for long periods of time without a reprieve.
Thankfully, Villanova Student Musical Theater presented the perfect way to take a break. Their latest show was a riotously funny comedy that had its audience literally gasping for breath after terrific characterizations, Villanova-specific puns and sidesplitting musical numbers.
I have seven years of backstage theatrical experience and when I attended the show, I was fully prepared to be critical.
Fortunately, I had nothing to critique.
I do not use such terms lightly. I have rarely, if ever, watched a non-professional theatrical production featuring such finely tuned direction and such a consistently talented cast, as VSMT introduced this past weekend.
From April 25—April 27 VSMT hosted “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a hysterical comedy that follows six young spellers as they navigate the county bee in the hope of claiming the championship title.
These six each represent different core values, personality traits and home lives; and each one had his or her own special spelling trick. William Barfeé (played by freshman Pat Walsh), self-proclaimed star speller has a song completely centered on his “Magic Foot” spelling technique. Logainne Schwartzandgrubeniere (played by junior Liana Galtieri), a lisping little girl with two demanding fathers, has dreams of doing things for herself for a change—after, of course, she takes home the prize for the bee to please her parents.
The other four spellers are the shy but hopeful Olive Ostrovsky, shrewd overachiever Marcy Park, excitable and goofy Leaf Coneybear and competitive Boy Scout Chip Tolentino, played by Sarah Moya, Katrina Michalewski, JJ Costabile and Mike Libonati, respectively.
Perhaps the most interesting component of “Spelling Bee” is its level of audience participation, which relies on the setting of the entire musical. The audience was often encouraged to applaud correct spellings, or to respond to specific lines in the dialogue among characters.
Most remarkably, however, was the experience of joining the actors onstage—at the beginning of each show, it was announced that several spellers have yet to “check in,” and should report to the registration table. The audience members are then called, by name, onstage to join the cast in spelling some of the challenging words delivered by the administration.
These characters are the principal adults in the show—Rona Lisa Peretti (Ellen Knapp), former bee champion; Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Wesley Brown), the moderator and slightly unhinged word-reader; and Mitch Mahoney (Tommy Monks), the half-endearing, half-intimidating comfort counselor, whose juice boxes are meant to relieve remorse, but occasionally spark intensely catchy dance numbers.
The adult, speller and audience components of the cast comprise a unique combination of rehearsed lines and complete spontaneity, so every performance varies somewhat from the ones before it.
To manage a show such as this requires precise management of actors’ character choices, so that each cast member knows how to respond to an unforeseen adaptation to the script.
Director Rob Ryan is most deserving of the credit due to this production. His pinpoint accuracy in guiding the cast is evident in its smooth, mechanical movement, a nearly seamless progression from sequence to sequence, without the need for weighty or distracting gimmicks.
The show’s musical direction was similarly structured, with music director Jen Buono and choreographer Lauren Yap delivering powerfully persuasive numbers that did not bog down the production and did not feel out of place (with, it should be noted, the assistance of an extremely cohesive pit orchestra).
The production aspects of the show were invisible to the casual viewer, an achievement that few student theater organizations could hope to achieve.
Of course, the core of the whole performance remains the performance itself. The cast could be described as all-star, if it is to be judged by the reactions of frequent VSMT audience members.
Several at Friday’s performance remarked that the show was “clever,” “an uproar,” “charming” and a “killer musical.”
Personally, I was extremely impressed by the cast. Normally, one identifies a weaker performer amongst the rest, in one area or multiple, whose performance does not connect with the audience as completely as it could.
VSMT has no such problem—every single member of the “Spelling Bee” cast had extraordinary vocal talent, acting chops and dance moves. There was no visible weak link, no weak delivery, no hesitation onstage or mistuned pitch to be had.
This is the mark of an incredible chemistry and cohesiveness among the actors, as well as the strong hand of an authoritative, creative leader.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was a definite triumph, a student show as well performed as any I have ever seen in the past.
VSMT will certainly have its work cut out for next year if it hopes to match the extraordinary accomplishment it made with “Spelling Bee” this weekend.This is a group of students to keep your eyes on—more fun and music are sure to come.