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Best written reviews for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee ” performed by James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia. Reviewed on April 30, 2022.

Gabriella Sanchez

Langley High School


One spelling bee. Six competitors. Infinitely high stakes. Spell a word correctly, you are safe. Misspell a word, you are eliminated. In a room full of quirky middle schoolers, do you have what it takes to win?


"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" entails a highly competitive spelling bee set in Putnam Valley Middle School.  With eccentric music and lyrics written by William Finn, the 2005 Broadway production won two Tonys and performed over 1,000 shows. Through hilarious comedy, dramatic choreography, and euphonious singing, James Madison High School's rendition of the comical musical provided a refreshing take on the ridiculously competitive nature of spelling bees.


Fortune Picker portrayed the role of soft-hearted Olive Ostrovsky, using hunched shoulders and fearful eyes to signal timidness associated with her vulnerable character. Employing grief-stricken expressions, Picker conveyed her profound desire for parental love and validation through heart-breaking harmonies and periodic sobs in "The I Love You Song," joined by her mother (Mary Ulses) and father (Matthew Pearson). Casting a bright blue light over the actors, Graham Armstrong illuminated a tragic facade of Olive's interaction with her family. There was a noticeable emphasis on Picker's development, which is especially noticeable in the second act where she learns to overcome her family's absence and flourish into her own being.


With a humorous take on a typically serious role, William Barfée (Aaron Shansab) turned arrogant cadence into outright humor.  In the tap number "Magic Foot," Barfée showcased his excellent tap-dancing skills and powerhouse vocals with the help of the passionate ensemble. Constantly correcting the Vice Principal's pronunciation of his name, Shansab delved into the complexity and the fragility of his seemingly overconfident character to create an elaborate and captivating performance.


While he might not be that smart, Leaf Coneybear (Jonah Uffelman) was certainly hilarious. Wearing a tight helmet and red cape, Uffelman fully encapsulated childlike innocence with his clueless personality and lively movements in "I Am Not That Smart." Maintaining high energy throughout his time onstage, Uffelman's vibrancy fully immersed the audience into his character's wondrous imagination. Using his arms to make grandiose movements and carrying himself in an unaware manner, Uffelman greatly excelled at physical comedy. Further, Vice Principal Panch (Bill Gibb), provided excellent comedic relief as the moderator of the spelling bee. Through pauses after each witty remark, monotone speech, and unhinged outbursts of anger, Gibb perfectly encapsulated a stereotypical school administrator and balanced the anxiety-inducing competition with seamless comedy.


The ensemble joined the craze in the frenzied "Pandemonium" to comically illustrate the ruthless spelling bee competition. Adding to the hysteria, rainbow lights moved in different directions, bleachers spun in circles, and the live orchestra, known as the "Bee-Flats," played maniacal music. Although bodies moved in hurried directions, voices were still cohesive and individual characterization was precise. In addition, the set designed by Nic Crews, Kaitlyn Bellew, and Graham Armstrong created a very realistic feeling of a spelling bee set on a school premises. With fliers scattered on bulletin boards and bleachers placed on both sides of the stage, the set significantly accentuated the school-like atmosphere. Further, the costumes by Ciara Stefanik, Emma Burke, and Mikenna Corcoran heightened the individuality of the competitors and flawlessly matched their unique personalities.


Overall, James Madison High School's rendition of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" explored the nature of competitive rivalries and youthful determination through hysterical, outlandish comedy!

Tess Jannery-Barney

Langley High School


There are hundreds of thousands of words in the dictionary, but there can only be one champion. James Madison high School spelled out a snappy production of the 2005 Broadway musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. With articulate music and pronouncing lyrics by William Finn, and a Tony Award Winning, page-turning best book by Rachel Sheinkin, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee defines S-U-C-C-E-S-S, S-A-B-O-T-A-G-E, and S-A-C-R-F-I-C-E through a story of middle school scholars.


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical comedy set in a middle school gymnasium during the county-wide spelling bee, adjudicated by former bee champion, Rona Lisa Peretti, and the unhinged administrator, Vice Principal Panch. The story centers around six oddball logophiles: Logainne, Barfée, Olive, Chip, Leaf, and Marcy, on a journey to self-confidence and choice. These tweenaged spelling aficionados are forced to confront tweenaged desires and budding romances, overbearing or neglectful parents, in a fight of wits to win the competition.


Jonah Uffelman brought a genuine goofiness to the unlikely spelling bee contestant, Leaf, and made the audience explode in laughter in the lyrically playful "I'm Not That Smart" where he giggled at somewhat silly-sounding words, caressed his helmet hair, and doubted if there were any brains under his bicycle helmet. Every time Leaf was called to the stand, Uffelman crooked his head, dropped his jaw in awe, and widened his eyes, spelling almost every word perfectly. Clare Shannon shined with a surplus of brains and attitude as the overachieving Catholic school student, Marcy, demonstrating her vocal stamina, confident stage presence, and dance flexibility in her solo, "I Speak Six Languages," even dropping into a split in her final note of the song.


In "Magic Foot," Barfée (Aaron Shansab) revealed his secret spelling bee strategy and wiggled his right foot across the stage, miraculously dotting I's and crossing T's with his toes in a suitably awkward tap dancing jig. Fortune Picker played Barfée's love interest, Olive, with endearing vulnerability from the moment she entered the stage. First, Picker stood shy and unsure where to register for the bee, and then later in "The I Love You Song," Picker released softly haunting, then booming vocals, clutching the hands of her absent mother (Mary Ulses) and negligent father (Matthew Pearson.)


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee immersed the audience, from Vice Principal Panch (Bill Gibb) and Rona (Coco Pinnock) chatting with real audience members onstage to spell words at the bee, to Chip (Bailey Pavitt-Graff) chucking candy to the audience in "Chips Lament," and even in "Pandemonium."


Additionally, the stage crew (Jacob Simpson, Sanjeev Raghu, Sasha Tepp, and Audrey Miscavage) seamlessly tackled "Pandemonium," moving a large pair of gym bleachers from the utilitarian stage set (Nic Crews, Kaitlyn Bellew, and Graham Armstrong) in a swift set change.  During Leaf's trance-like spelling moments, a colorful array of lights (Graham Armstrong) focused on Leaf, and an echoey sound effect (Samuel Deege, Izzette Azari, and Patrick Thurston) reverberated every letter Leaf spoke, utilizing technical elements to further examine the characters and aid comedic moments within the musical.


After the final round of the bee, Barfée (Aaron Shansab) rejoiced as the victor, beaming with his golden trophy. Although every child was not a champion, each speller achieved; Olive found love and friendship, Leaf became maybe a little smarter, and Rona celebrated yet another year of academic excellence. Overall, James Madison High School's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was a perfect example of how to use C-O-M-E-D-Y in a sentence, defined what it truly means to be a W-I-N-N-E-R, and repeated L-A-U-G-H-T-E-R all night long.


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