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Comedy musical ‘Spelling Bee’ is everything but daunting despite the brainy title

Comedy musical ‘Spelling Bee’ is everything but daunting despite the brainy title

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  • “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” shows us heartwarming truths about growing up and just trying our best—with a sprinkle of vocabulary, too
spelling bee sandbox collective

Don’t be fooled by the show’s lengthy, no-nonsense title. This musical is the farthest from being mentally taxing—even if it does feature a few complex words. 

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a musical written by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin that debuted on Broadway in 2005. This local staging marks the beginning of The Sandbox Collective’s 10th season. This staging, directed by Missy Maramara, features a younger Gen Z cast as opposed to the original material’s call for adults to play the kid characters. This in turn makes the musical a touch more “believable,” lending itself more towards relatability or empathy, than comedy.

That’s not to say it isn’t funny. It is. It is immensely hilarious, thanks to the dynamic cast and their very animated portrayals of each character—from the six young spelling bee contestants to the motley crew of adults around them. Its improv elements, thanks to having selected audience members participate in the bee, make each performance unique (and uniquely funny), too.

spelling bee sandbox collective
The cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” with guest spellers actor Phi Palmos, actress Maymay Entrata, and broadcaster Ces Drilon

Acting and reacting

While the musical revolves around the events of the spelling bee and the circumstances of its young participants, a chunk of the show is also dedicated to audience interaction. Four members of the audience (who either volunteered or were invited before the show) are called to the stage and are assigned contestant numbers. They are also briefed on the rules of the bee—a song number in itself.

Aside from acting as their own characters, the actors part of the musical also cue the “guest spellers” on where to sit, when to stand, and how to react. So as amusing as it is already to watch these Gen Z actors take on their roles, it’s also highly entertaining to watch them react when guest spellers are introduced, or when the guest spellers play along in asking for definitions.

spelling bee sandbox collective
Justine Narciso as Schwartzy
spelling bee sandbox collective
Diego Aranda as Chip Tolentino, winner of the previous year’s county spelling bee

Justine Narciso and Becca Coates, who alternate for the role of Logainne “Schwartzy” SchwartzandGrubenierre (her name is a spelling challenge in itself! Phew!) both did a wonderful job portraying who to me is the most animated speller of the six. Being the youngest character, the challenge is to make her appear energetic and youthful, but not too much of a caricature of a child. Narciso perfectly expressed that youthful energy without being over the top—her Schwartzy was so amusing to watch, even her reactions as she sits on the side, waiting for her turn or watching other spellers at the mic. 

Coates, meanwhile, has a more whiz kid take to Schwartzy. She is, after all, the youngest competitor at the county level. A politically aware child! Still peppy, but with a slight maturity. Schwartzy’s character is one of those you feel sad for when she gets (Spoiler alert!) eliminated; we all know the frustration of unintentionally making things more difficult for ourselves, when the solution would have just been so easy. And for little Schwartzy who seems to just want validation and acceptance—love—her goodbye becomes a bit more saddening. Woe is me, indeed.

spelling bee sandbox collective
Leaf Coneybear, played by Shaun Ocrisma, recalls being told by his family (represented by the spellers) that he’s “not that smart.”

Leaf Coneybear’s charm meanwhile lies in his airheadedness, contrasting with the rigidity of his “possessed” state when he finally does get to spell. Shaun Ocrisma captures this well, his Coneybear being equal parts so-adorable-you-want-to-hug-him, and actually lowkey menacing when he starts to spell. Marcy Park, the all-rounder, ace, overachiever of the bunch (also the most visibly unhappy, if not too serious) mostly shines at her solo, demonstrating she can not only “speak six languages,” she can dance, do cartwheels, sing while being lifted and tossed, and “play piano,” too. 

spelling bee sandbox collective
Shanaia Gomez as the stoic overachiever Marcy Park
spelling bee sandbox collective
Becca Coates as Schwartzy

Leaf and Marcy get the more uplifting goodbyes in the musical. Their exits both show them positively changed by the events of the bee—Leaf believing more in himself and in his own brand of smart, and Marcy learning to embrace imperfection. Both are very important qualities to keep reminding ourselves of, too, as adults.

Star power

“Spelling Bee” also marks the professional theatrical debut of several young talents. Star Magic artist Shanaia Gomez proved herself a worthy Marcy as she pulled off all of the ace’s stunts without missing a note. 

Quiet, humble child Olive Ostrovsky, who also has a heartwarming character arc, is played by both Star Music recording artist Angela Ken and by “Annie” breakout lead Krystal Brimner. Ken and Brimner both capture the quirkiness and passion of Olive’s dictionary-loving character, balanced with the gentleness and meekness of her demeanor. Singing is flawless for both, especially when they deliver the heartrending “The I Love You Song.” Ken was also remarkably able to portray the emotions required of Olive, but her vocal projection on stage falls short at times—this is where Brimner’s prior theater experience already shines, as she is able to make herself heard and understood even in Olive’s quiet moments.

spelling bee sandbox collective
Angela Ken as Olive Ostrovsky

Acclaimed and established singer, songwriter, and actor Nyoy Volante plays ex-convict turned comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, alternating with Jordan Andrews. Mahoney provides visual and emotional contrast in the musical. Rough around the edges, face visibly saying he doesn’t want to be here, but fiercely leading the show’s numerous “Goodbye” numbers, Mahoney’s contradictory stance and character add to the humorous aspect of the show. 

Rona Lisa Peretti and Vice Principal Panch, played by theater veterans Liesl Batucan, Audie Gemora, and Robbie Guevara, keep the bee running. They also have their share of laughter-inducing moments, especially as they interact and improvise their lines in response to guest spellers.

Sandbox’s version of “Spelling Bee” also brings the material 20 years to the present, with its integration of technology in its staging. Television screens project the words as characters spell them out, and even show some of the characters’ POVs at key points, such as when last year’s champion Chip Tolentino gets distracted by an audience member who catches his eye (much to the detriment of his spelling bee performance). 

We can all agree and relate: Life is pandemonium

While we watch these kids pour their hearts into competitive spelling (a silly thought for an adult with real world problems, perhaps, but very real for them!), we also get a glimpse into each speller’s background, each one relatable to an extent.

Perhaps we’d find ourselves in Shwartzy, who keeps trying to be the best out of wanting to be loved. Or maybe like Leaf, we feel like we’re “not that smart,” or burned out like overachiever Marcy. Or maybe we just struggle with our health like William Barfée. Or maybe we let our attraction to others distract us from our goals the way Chip did. Then again, we could just actually be kind of lonely, like Olive. Maybe we’re a bit of all of them.

Though mostly a comedy, the musical succeeds in touching on the issues and pressures kids face. In the moments these child spellers bare their woes, we might find something our inner child could empathize with. Still, you’re likely to walk out of the theater mostly remembering all your laughs. And maybe with a bit of a desire to learn more words, too. 

spelling bee sandbox collective
Nyoy Volante plays Mitch Mahoney, who is on community service and acts as the spelling bee’s comfort counselor. He hands out juice boxes to eliminated spellers and escorts them off stage.
spelling bee sandbox collective
Joshy Ramirez as William Barfee

The Sandbox Collective’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs until March 17 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Black Box Theater, Circuit Makati. Directed by Missy Maramara with musical direction by Rony Fortich. Starring Diego Aranda and Luis Marcelo as Chip Tolentino; Shanaia Gomez and AC Bonifacio as Marcy Park; Becca Coates and Justine Narciso as Logainne SchwartzandGrubennierre; Ron Balgos and Joshy Ramirez as William Barfée; Krystal Brimner and Angela Ken as Olive Ostrovsky; Shaun Ocrisma and Elian Dominguez as Leaf Coneybear; Audie Gemora and Robbie Guevara as Vice Principal Panch; Liesl Batucan-Del Rosario as Rona Lisa Peretti; Nyoy Volante and Jordan Andrews as Mitch Mahoney.

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