The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo: Thomas Fougerousse

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

By Rachel Sheinkin & William Finn
Directed by Dr. Ariadne Calvano

A review by Brian Kennedy

Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Brian Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Are spelling bees really fun? If the University of Louisville’s Department of Theatre Arts production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is any judge, they must be, 

Audience members are greeted with a very authentic-looking stage setup for a spelling bee. A microphone with a stand is centerstage, a spelling bee banner above the stage, the contestant’s chairs behind the microphone stand to the left, and the judges’ table and bell off to the right. Meanwhile, the Putnam County Middle School logo is on the ground just behind the microphone stand, and middle school banners showing the success of various academic or debate teams line the walls. 

Then, the judges are introduced, including Rona Lisa Peretti (Sarah Elston), who lives off the glory of her 3rd Annual spelling bee win, and VP Panch (Darrin Mosley), who has returned to the spelling bee after a five-year absence following an incident. Elston and Mosley showed good chemistry together and kept the bee moving at a good pace. 

Next, the contestants (including some audience members) are introduced. Each contestant has an interesting quirk or spelling style. Sometimes, it involves using a foot to write it out like William Barfee (Sa’id “Nxxtime” Kelly), or it could be going into a trance-like state like Leaf Coneybear (Ross Just). 

Just already stood out just with his costume, which includes a Superman cape and a bicycle helmet. Add in his energetic movement and voice, and it results in the most hilarious character in the show. Kelly, meanwhile, had wonderful reactions, especially when the judges kept mispronouncing his name. He also earned plenty of laughs as he moved down the stage, spelling each word with his foot.

Sometimes the words the contestants have to spell are difficult, but some of them get easy words like “cow” which leads to the entire cast performing the insanely fun song “Pandemonium”, with active choreography, strong vocals, and some fun with beach balls.

Each contestant had a backstory, usually told in a flashback and song. Of particular note is defending champion Chip Tolentino (Nick Wills), who very humorously tries not to let his “excitement” get the best of him. Wills’ song at the beginning of the second act was the funniest moment in the show.

Then, there was Olive (Madison Zinner), whose father is running late to the bee while her mother isn’t even in the country. Zinner turned in an emotional, heart-wrenching performance in “The I Love You Song” that was, without question, the overall best moment in the show. 

The main question, however, is, who wins director Ari Calvano’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee? To find out go to The Belknap Playhouse on U of L’s campus. With hilarious and heartbreaking moments, some audience participation, and overall decent singing, this show will be worth your T-I-M-E.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

February 9 – 19, 2023

University of Louisville Dept of Theater Arts
U of L Playhouse
1911 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40292

Brian Kennedy is a nearly life-long Louisville resident who has performed in plays since 2004. He also wrote extensively about the Louisville theatre scene for and from 2009-2015. Currently, he maintains the theatre blog LouBriantheater. When not involved in the theatre scene, he is an avid runner, participating in 5Ks throughout the state and in southern Indiana.