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Highlands High School’s "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

Review by Erin Driehaus, Mercy McAuley High School Cappies Critic Team

Dabbing boy scouts, custodians in bedazzled jumpsuits, and a cameo from a female Jesus are not often found together in a production. However, Highlands High School’s performance of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” managed to incorporate these unique elements, and many more, in an epic story of the trials and tribulations undergone over the course of a middle school spelling bee.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” follows the stories of various characters involved in the bee. Backstories and personalities are given to each of the spellers, moderators, and even background characters. The plot of this show allows for a behind the scenes look at all of the drama, conflict, and surprisingly large number of songs that happen during a spelling bee.

Highlands High School’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was immensely impressive. The success of the performance was deeply rooted in Highlands’s extremely talented cast and adept crews.

Possibly the most admirable factor of this show was the improvisational abilities of Highlands’s cast members. A large number of the especially hilarious anecdotes from the show were improvised by the cast, coming up with their own material as the performance progressed. Portraying the role of Vice Principal Douglas Panch, Braxton Broering elicited copious amounts of laughter throughout the performance thanks to his dedication to never breaking character, perfectly embodying his role of a sarcastic, monotone spelling bee moderator. Grant Sower also performed with an admirable amount of dedication to his role, convincingly portraying the character of wild, hyper, and cape-wearing Leaf Coneybear, the most energetic speller in the whole bee. From a vocal performance standpoint, Zoe Zoller absolutely dominated the stage with her powerful vibrato. Performing in the role of Olive Ostrovsky, Zoller’s fantastic voice soared during numbers such as “The I Love You Song” and “Second”. The entire cast delivered an exemplary performance, effortlessly harmonizing and performing the numbers with skill and ease.

Highlands’s technical crews definitely showcased their talent during this production. The Lighting Crew, consisting of David Dierig, Austin Paolucci, Miles Sower and crew, provided the show with excitement and diversity in presentation, which was especially fitting considering the performance takes place in the same room in front of the same set. The Costume Crew, made up of Annie Perkins, Thaddy Sieverding, Haley Whitt and crew, also created diversity against the backdrop, providing each of the characters with a distinct, detailed costume that made it very easy to distinguish characters from one another.

Highlands High School’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was a comedic masterpiece, and through the teamwork between the impressive cast and dedicated crews, the performance was a rounding success filled to the brim with talent and originality.

Review by Lucy Lawler, St. Ursula Academy Cappies Critic Team

When one evokes the memory of a spelling bee, certain images flash forward. A beloved childhood staple, this event flawlessly captures the golden age of friendly competition and classmate rivalry. But what can happen when the stakes become too high to handle? Highlands High School Theatre answers this question in their hilariously poignant production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Originally hitting the Broadway stage in 2005, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has evolved into a cherished musical comedy. Taking place in the fictitious Putnam County, the production follows the actions of six idiosyncratic students determined to take on the champion title. Overseeing the competition’s proceedings are Rona Lisa Peretti and Douglas Panch, two atypical adults who struggle to keep the competition on a straight and narrow path. As tensions rise among contestants, the Bee becomes a place of pandemonium; rivalries grow hotter, romance blossoms, and somber truths come to light. But above it all, one notion remains: There is nothing quite like a Spelling Bee.

Complete with innovative audience participation and avid improvisation, Highlands High School’s performance of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was undoubtedly impressive. Buzzing with palpable energy, the production emanated both comedic effect and emotional impact. From explosive dance sequences to bedazzled custodians, each facet of the story was presented in an utterly unique manner.

The use of characterization in this show was both polished and proficient. Hank Slaby’s performance as lovable geek William Barfee exuded authenticity. Slaby’s ability to portray his character as both endearing and exasperating speaks to his aptitude as an actor; likewise, his strong stage presence was never absent, especially in essential comedic numbers such as “Magic Foot.” Zoe Zoller’s interpretation of Olive Ostrovsky also added to the production’s charisma. Genuine and heartfelt, the actress’s performance shed light on the heartbreaking repercussions of parental neglect. Zoller further impressed with her gorgeous vibrato which was prominently featured in “The I Love You Song.”

The supporting cast also offered memorable renditions of treasured characters. Maggie Seibert’s portrayal of Rona Lisa Peretti excelled when it came to subtle humor; similarly, Braxton Broering’s deadpan delivery and suggestive attitude made him the perfect choice for Vice Principal Douglas Panch. One standout performer was Grant Sower in the role of Leaf Coneybear. Oozing with comedic talent, Sower never failed to induce laughs. However, he also succeeded in communicating his character’s underlying struggles, such as the overwhelming self-doubt Leaf experiences during “I’m Not That Smart.”

The technical elements utilized by Highlands truly embodied the zany essence of Putnam County. Staying true to the gymnasium setting, the back of the stage was adorned with customary wall mats; additionally, a collection of mobile bleachers allowed the solitary set to obtain more dimension. The Sound and Light Crew, led by Steve Lang and Austin Paolucci, also made valuable contributions to the production. Proving themselves to be masters of speed, these students created a whole new atmosphere for the Spelling Bee; spiral light patterns accentuated William Barfee’s slow-motion sequence, and rapid sound cues gave the powerful illusion of restless competition. The stage was always illuminated in beautiful color which changed decisively to communicate the moods and motivations of each character. Overall, each technical component used in the performance was implemented with remarkable precision and purpose.

So what does a Spelling Bee rightly demand? Highlands Theatre formulates the answer flawlessly in their production. Beyond a flurry of words and definitions, the true risks of competition lie in one thing: the competitors themselves. And in this case, each cast and crew member defied the stakes to spell out success.

Review by Nadya Ellerhorst, Walnut Hills High School Cappies Critic Team

“Splendid.” “Definition?” “Magnificent; very impressive.” “Origin?” “Latin.” “Example of its use in a sentence?” Highlands High School’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was absolutely splendid.

Written by Rachel Sheinkin with music by William Finn, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” premiered on Broadway in 2005 and soon reaped a plethora of awards, including a Tony for Best Book in a Musical. The musical centers on a motley of spelling whiz kids going head-to-head in a spelling bee chock-full of romance, rivalry, flashbacks, and the occasional juice box. Although there’s only one champion at the end, each participant leaves the bee with a more mature outlook on life as a prize.

Highlands’ “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was an impressive production, merging show-stopping numbers with improvisation and audience participation. On-point lighting cues and an excellently built set as part of the mix made for an entertaining spectacle filled with plenty of amusement and absurd linguistics, while actors’ adroitness in dealing with the unpredictability of improvised scenes allowed for even more farce.

The show’s dexterous (and dictionary proficient) cast handled both the ridiculously long words and the show’s demanding numbers with ease. Zoe Zoller gave a dynamic performance as the kind Olive Ostrovsky, stealing hearts with her character’s gentle, bashful demeanor and then stealing the show with her hair-raising performance of “The I Love You Song.” Grant Sower’s laugh-out-loud rendering of Leaf Coneybear, the most immature of the adolescent contestants, was sidesplitting from the start. Whether it was having to repeatedly spell the names of South American rodents or doing away with a lice-filled bike helmet, Sower’s antics and convincing childlike conduct established his character as one of the highlights of the production.

Of course, The Bee couldn’t have gone on without its troupe of “grownups,” notably Maggie Seibert as one-time spelling bee victor, Rona Lisa Peretti, and Braxton Broering as the unstable, but well-intentioned, Vice Principal Douglas Panch. Both Seibert’s animated portrayal of the spelling-bee enthusiast and demonstration of her dazzling vocal skills were carried out with an unshakable vigor. Broering’s dry recitations of the definitions and uses of utterly ludicrous words spurred waves of tumultuous laughter and made for some of the most memorable moments of the entire show. Additionally, the mature dispositions of these actors’ characters allowed for spellers’ childish mannerisms to seem all the more genuine.

The show’s immersive sets and lighting added much to the already-engrossing musical. The simplistic, but realistic gymnasium set of Allison Bertasso, Daniel Broomall, Lily Shamblin, and crew gave the production an authentic feel, complete with school spirit paraphernalia adorning its extensive walls, metal bleachers for the contestants to both sit and perform on between turns, and a shiny, gargantuan trophy looming conspicuously in the background. Furthermore, the clever lightning of Austin Paolucci, David Dierig, Miles Sower, and the rest of the lighting crew was integral to the show’s many complex scenes. It was clear that much thought and planning were put into the light design, with incredibly on-point light cues allowing for lightning-fast flashbacks, slow motion interludes, and wonderfully over-the-top send-offs for each losing speller.

A myriad of words in the dictionary could describe Highlands High School’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” However, regardless of the terms chosen from that kaleidoscopic array to characterize the show, there’s only one suitable word to define how the cast and crew should feel: proud.

Excerpts from Top-Ranked Student Reviews

“First to the stage was Maggie Seibert as Rona Lisa Peretti, alum of the spelling bee and current announcer. Both she and Zoe Zoller, playing Olive Ostrovsky, had phenomenal vocal stamina throughout the show, mixing their vibratos together in perfect harmony. Zoller’s voice was on display during her heart-wrenching ballad with her parents called “The I Love You Song.” While most of the production left the audience cackling, her solos about her past brought tears to everyone’s eyes.”

-Elizabeth Snelling, Ursuline Academy

“The crew members also did an incredible job during the show and the time leading up to it. As assistant directors, Victoria Alcorn and Tamara Sanow worked on characterization and improv with the actors, among other responsibilities. The gym set, in which the spelling bee was held, was designed and built with a noteworthy attention to detail by Allison Bertasso, Daniel Broomall, Lily Shamblin, and other members of the crew. The lighting, designed by Austin Paolucci and David Dierig and operated by Miles Sower, captured the show’s flashbacks, slow-motion moment, and other effects phenomenally well.”

-Kelly Oberst, Larry A. Ryle High School

“One of the standout performances from this production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was given by Zoe Zoller in her role as Olive Ostrovsky. Not only did she perform her part with extreme conviction, her vocals were simply stunning. In “The I Love You Song,” Zoller’s performance was heartbreaking, as she lamented the love Olive knew she would never receive from her parents.”

-Iris LeCates, Walnut Hills High School

“Highlands’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” wasn’t a success just because of the cast, but was a success due to its many crew members. The set, designed by Allison Bertasso, Lizzy Roeding, and Lily Shamblin and constructed by the Set Construction Crew, fit the needs of the show well. This musical takes place in one room, but these aforementioned crew members created a versatile set that remained active.”

-Mattie Flynn, Mercy McAuley High School

“Izzy Moses showed dedication to her craft through a convincing lisp that was almost as strong as her character’s world views. Similarly, William Barfee, the touchy, know-it-all played by Hank Slaby, was clearly ready to stomp out the competition with his magic foot. Quick wit and biting comebacks from these two elevated the high stakes.”

-Victoria Childers, Roger Bacon High School

“The production would not have been achievable if it was not for the talented crew members’ striking attention to detail. The lighting crew manipulated a variety of techniques throughout the show to cater to each individual scene. For example, bright flashing lights were used during “Pandemonium” to emphasize the sporadic nature of the song.”

-Anna Nappi, St. Ursula Academy

“Grant Sower quickly became the most beloved contestant, taking the goofy persona of Leaf Coneybear and crafting him into a boy yearning for self-worth. The level of energy and unpredictability filling the stage was refreshing without being chaotic.”

-Soumya Jaiswal, William Mason High School

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