Review: ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ by Wildwood Summer Theater

How do you spell “talented”? This summer it’s spelled W-I-L-D-W-O-O-D.

Yashi Janamanchi and cast of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.’ Photo by Ian Band.

Wildwood Summer Theater is the DC area’s only all-youth musical theater company. Everyone associated with the group, from the Board of Directors to the pit orchestra musicians, from the technical crew to the actors, must be between the ages of 14 and 25. However, don’t get the idea that this theater company is anything other than completely professional and of the highest caliber, as evidenced by the stupendous talent and technical excellence on display at the company’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Director Abigail Olshin makes excellent use of an extremely able cast in this story of a middle school spelling bee and the kids and adults who participate in it. The show seems both perfectly suited for the all-youth company and for the small-ish stage at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn. With just one real setting, the actors aren’t tasked with having to move set pieces around the small space to create multiple locations. This allows the front of the stage to remain completely bare, giving the actors enough room to work their magic, and many of them take good advantage of the space provided during their solo songs. 

The six “middle schoolers” participating in the spelling bee are both painfully awkward and immensely lovable, and the actors use amazing skill to highlight the lack of coordination and polish that are the hallmarks of this age, while avoiding making the characters just caricatures of pre-teens. While all the actors gave strong performances, Taylor Litofsky as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (adopted daughter of a gay couple named “Schwartz” and “Grubenniere,” of course) and Joey Moore as Leaf Coneybear stand out for their extreme earnestness and awkwardness. Both actors also play other minor roles in the story, and it is amazing to watch them seamlessly switch characters, losing their lisp and nerdiness for just a few moments before popping back into their characters. 

Additional excellent performances and singing came from Trevor Band as former champion Chip Tolentino, Marney Harris as the gentle Olive Ostrovsky, and Lexie Cheng as the seemingly perfect Marcy Park. Tudor Postolache as the nerdy William Barfee (Bar-FEY!) has the most amazing facial expressions and could practically be a living cartoon character. The “adults” of the story also delivered strong performances. 

The pit orchestra, headed by music director Ginny Moses, was hidden from view, but the music perfectly accompanied the actors, blending seamlessly into the overall ambiance of the show. The lighting and sound were also well run, giving the entire production a professional feel that not every community theater company has mastered. 

Mary Murdock in ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.’ Photo by Ian Band.

The music and book by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn is both funny and touching, with hints of some of the underlying issues facing young teens today woven into the context of the spelling bee, including absent parents, the pressure to be the best, the pressure to fit in, and the angst of first love. 

Wildwood Summer Theater’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is yet another triumph for today’s youth who, like the children featured in the story, are always ready to amaze you with their talent and inspire you by their hard work and commitment. Don’t miss this chance to see some of DC’s strongest actors take the stage and make a splash, and if someone asks you to be a volunteer, do it. 

Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee presented by Wildwood Summer Theater plays through August 3, 2019, at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets, go online.