‘Spelling Bee’ the play creates buzz

Hanna Hornfeld, Staff Writer

While spelling bees are generally fairly mundane, this year’s Middle Division musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” has been nothing short of hilarious and exciting for its cast members.
Throughout this production about a middle school spelling bee, characters come up to the stage and spell words, occasionally going off on musical tangents that segue into backstories.

Dance teacher Denise Direnzo, the production’s director, chose the musical because of its positive energy and the characters’ individual personalities. “I saw the Broadway production about 12 years ago and thought it was delightful,” she said. “Later, I saw a scaled down version of the musical at a community theatre outside of NYC and was once again taken by the music and lyrics, the quirky characters, and the way each person’s story was woven throughout the show.”

Indeed, the play is filled with unique and quirky characters that make it funny to watch and even more enjoyable to be a part of, actor Alex Felberbaum (6) said. “There are a bunch of kids with totally different personalities participating in the most odd spelling bee with a million things happening at once, and it’s just a crazy and fun experience.”

Felberbaum plays Chip Tolentino, an overconfident boy scout who won the previous year’s spelling bee. Felderbaum is extremely happy with his character, as he connects with Chip’s emotions and high energy level, he said. “He is probably one of the most confident characters in any show I’ve ever seen, which makes him so much fun to play,” Felberbaum said.

Jeffrey Dai (8) also enjoys embodying his a unique character, he said. Dai plays the role of Vice Principal Douglas Panch, the official word pronouncer of the bee. His role, pronouncing and defining words for characters, is especially entertaining because it allows him the freedom to use the words in humorous improvised sentences, he said.

“In some songs specifically there is a lot of humor surrounding the somewhat directed improv I have to do, as well as the anger management issues my character has,” Dai said. “It’s a lot of fun to play around with that.”

This is Dai’s third consecutive year in MD productions and his second year playing a comedic character. He enjoys playing funny characters because they help him connect with the audience, especially its younger members, who may grow bored during more serious moments, he said.

Aashna Hari (7), who plays Ronalisa Perretti, took longer to connect with her character, because she originally found Ronalisa, a real estate agent who runs the spelling bee, annoying and auditioned for a different role, she said. However, upon reading the script more closely, Hari realized that her character was supportive and understanding, and grew to care for her, she said.

Julia Lourenco (6) is in the ensemble, but growing to love the characters was easy for her, she said. “They’re all crazy characters with really weird quirks, but at the end of the day, they’re a lot of fun,” she said.

Although Lourenco has participated in performances at a musical theater camp, this is her first time in a fully-fledged production, she said. Lourenco and Hari auditioned because they are in MD chorus and enjoy performing, they said. Dancing is also a way to simultaneously stay active and have a good time, Lourenco said.

Between last year’s play and this musical, performing in front of strangers has boosted Hari’s confidence and helped her step outside her comfort zone, she said.

Dai agrees that being in the productions has both improved his technical skills onstage and his life skills off-stage. “I voice my opinions more often now, instead of pushing things aside,” Dai said.

Felderbaum agrees, believing the musical taught him life skills as well, he said. “I auditioned for the musical expecting to be in the ensemble, but getting a lead role as a sixth grader has shown me that anything is possible, and never to underestimate yourself,” he said.

Felberbaum adores Broadway musicals, and being in this production has shaped the way he now views other shows. “I actually just saw a musical, Beetlejuice, and considering how much work we put into our own MD musical just amazes me when I think about what had to happen for such a big production as that to be put on,” he said. 

“It’s an exciting show,” Felberbaum said, “and I think it’s going to go above and beyond.”