Grab your D-I-C-T-I-O-N-A-R-Y: Butler Theatre performs a comedic spelling bee musical

The cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” reprise the title song. Photo courtesy of Zach Rosing


What is a musical combined with a bunch of kids competing for the county spelling bee trophy? A whole lot of “Pandemonium”! 

Thursday, Nov. 2 through Sunday, Nov. 5, Butler Theatre performed the Tony Award-winning musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. Much like Butler Theatre’s production of “Pippin”, this show was open to both theatre and non-theatre majors for audition. 

The musical follows six children who are invited to participate in a spelling bee. Throughout the show, the audience gets to learn more about the characters’ lives and how many of them feel pressured to live up to certain expectations, be it their family’s or their own. 

Junior theatre major Jess Rullo played the character Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre who constantly struggles to live up to the expectations of her parents. 

“She is the youngest competitor of the [spelling] bee this year,” Rullo said. “She has a lot of pressures from her two dads to win the bee, so [the audience] gets to see how that affects her throughout the show.” 

First-year acting major Rylan Dowell played Leaf Coneybear in the musical. Unlike Logainne’s family, Leaf’s family expects less of him. Dowell explained how Leaf is an example that the characters are more than meets the eye. 

“My character is the homeschooled kid who nobody believes [will] go far, but then he actually starts spelling the words right,” Dowell said. “Then he [starts to believe] maybe [he has] a chance. [The audience can] get into the minds and the stories of these kids and realize that they are people too and spelling is not just spelling for them. It’s their whole world, and that’s what makes them [who they are].” 

A humorous element of the musical is that the cast of spellers, including show-specific audience guest spellers, portray children even though they are adults. This Butler production featured themed performances for audience participation. Each performance’s guest spellers consisted of faculty members from either the Jordan College of the Arts, the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, the College of Education or the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. There was also a raunchy performance featuring students involved in Greek life. 

Rullo expanded on how audience participation added to the musical’s uniqueness. 

“There’s a lot of really funny moments, [and] a lot of your usual musical theatre aspects for an older audience,” Rullo said. “But just being able to have so much audience participation, as well as funny moments put together, makes it a really fun and unique show.” 

Although the characters’s problems are often portrayed in a childish way, these adult performers, as well as the audience, can still find a way to relate to their hardships. 

First-year theatre major Gemma Cascarano portrayed Marcy Park in the show. Cascarano described how she can sometimes relate to her character’s desire for things to be perfect. 

“She is a perfectionist and is amazing at literally every single thing and knows she is,” Cascarano said. “Spoiler alert: she [eventually] has a shift in perspective and [realizes that she does not] need to be good at everything. She [has the mindset of], ‘This way is my way, and it has to be my way’, and that’s very much me. I relate to her on so many different levels.” 

The musical’s songs bring some additional humor to the show while also giving the audience a glimpse at each speller’s struggles and insecurities. The song “I’m Not That Smart” shows that Leaf is convinced he is not smart enough to be at the bee, but has a shift in perspective when he starts to spell words correctly. Alternatively, “I Speak Six Languages” demonstrates how Marcy recognizes that she is the best at everything she does but is tired of being perfect all of the time. 

One of Dowell’s favorite songs of the show is “Pandemonium”. The song depicts how the spellers think that it is unfair that some are getting easier words than others, then go on to compare it to how unfair life is. 

“I really like ‘Pandemonium’ because we get to involve the audience volunteers,” Dowell said. “We drag them to do parts of the dance, and then by the end of it we’re doing all this crazy stuff. I bring [an audience volunteer] onto this cart, and we push them around the stage. It’s absolutely crazy, and it’s so much fun.” 

Typically, some of the biggest challenges for actors are memorizing lines and learning how to work around a certain set. Rullo explained how this musical created a different challenge for her. 

“[My biggest challenge was] trying not to laugh,” Rullo said. “There are a lot of funny moments, and my character is supposed to be very stoic. I’m just trying not to break in front of everybody. I’ve done this show before, so I kind of know where things hit [harder], and so I’ve gotten good at [not laughing at those parts], but sometimes things [are] just too much.” 

Unlike many previous Mainstage productions at Butler, over half of the cast of the musical consisted of first years. Cascarano explained why she wanted to join this production as a first-year student. 

“I wanted the experience [in musical theatre], and I also wanted to make new friends,” Cascarano said. “Theatre is such a good way of meeting people and creating that close-knit family. I wanted to create more of that going into freshman year.” 

This musical is an improvisational challenge for the actors mainly because of the audience participation, which can cause many unpredictable moments during the performance. Because of its unpredictable nature, audiences who are not familiar with the show can be thrown off. However, Dowell described why he thinks the unexpectedness is the reason why audiences enjoy it. 

“I think the audience [enjoys] the show because it’s a story that they’re not going to expect,” Dowell said. “Just from the looks of the poster itself and just hearing [about] it, [people are] going to think it’s some cutesy little show. But I think there’s a lot of layers [with] smart and dark humor within. I think [that throws] people off but in a good way.” 

Learn more about Butler Theatre’s upcoming productions for this school year’s Mainstage season on the Butler Theatre website.


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