June 2, 2020

‘Putnam County Spelling Bee’ a laugh ‘r-i-o-t’

Vin St. John, as William Barfee, lunges red-faced off the bleachers during the bee. (Tim Lee).

I shouldn’t have worn my Mickey Mouse T-shirt. As soon as I got in line to pick up my ticket for TCNJ Musical Theater (TMT)’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” on April 8, two “children” (a.k.a. performers from the show) latched onto me and called me “Mickey.”

Then the Mickey Mouse Club theme song began to drift from the Don Evans Black Box Theatre and I knew I was doomed.

“It’s your song!” they both screamed.

I thought I was safe when I escaped to my seat in the theater, which was adorned like an elementary-school gymnasium with “Coed Curling” and “State Quidditch Cup” banners and the facsimile gym floor. But right before the show began, who settled into the two seats to my right but my own personal Mickey Mouse club. They sat next to me for the entire show, whispering and reacting to the events of the “bee.”

It was a blast, as was the rest of the experience that was “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which ran from April 7-11.

One distinct aspect of this show was the fact that audience members were picked at random while buying their tickets to “participate” in the bee. Two college-age students, one parent and a little girl were placed among the performers. Each got at least one easy word to spell.

When Joanne Fillari, mother of performer Joseph Fillari, freshman accounting major, got the word “cow,” she wanted to make sure of the definition and hear the word in a sentence just like Vice Principal Douglas Patch (junior English major Steven Avigliano) advised all the bee contestants to do at the beginning of the show.

Could she have the definition?

“It means a cow,” Avigliano responded.

Could he use it in a sentence?

“Please spell cow,” Avigliano quipped.

“They picked me when I walked in and I was a little nervous what words I would get. But ‘cow’ was a good start,” Fillari said afterward.

“I think she did much much better than I expected her to and it was a blast seeing her up there having fun, kind of being in the show,” Joseph Fillari said about his mother’s performance.

But soon the audience members were disqualified for spelling horrendously hard words incorrectly.

Musical highlights of the show included “I’m Not That Smart,” “Magic Foot” and “My Unfortunate Erection.”

“I’m Not That Smart” featured the story of bee contestant Leaf Coneybear, played by junior art education major Zach Mazouat. He explained how his family thought he was stupid, how he made his own clothes (because the neon green cape sprinkled with stickers wasn’t an indication) and how he was just happy to be there.

“Magic Foot” was an ode to William Barfee’s (senior computer science major Vin St. John’s) aforementioned appendage and how it aided him in writing the correct spellings of words on the floor.

“My Unfortunate Erection” was about bee contestant Chip Tolentino’s (senior history and international studies double major Jerry Tower’s), well, unfortunate erection that distracted him, causing him to be disqualified.

Acting-wise, this was definitely an ensemble production, but a few performances stood out. Avigliano was hysterical as the slightly off-kilter vice principal and his banter with the contestants about the definitions and sentences was priceless.

St. John was equally genius as William Barfee. St. John always embodies whatever odd character TMT casts him to play and the obsessively creepy Barfee was no different.

But it was Mazouat as Leaf Coneybear who stole the show. He was simply adorable as the awkward kid in the cape with no self-esteem, whose sole accomplishment, listed at the end of the show when each participants’ future was described, was “Leaf Coneybear has cats.”

And that sums up the fun insanity of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” better than I ever could.

Caroline Russomanno can be reached at russoma4@tcnj.edu.

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