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REVIEW: ‘Spelling Bee’ is Pandemonium

REVIEW: ‘Spelling Bee’ is Pandemonium

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Cute meets chaos in The Sandbox Collective’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Power Mac Center Spotlight’s Black Box Theater. Directed by Missy Maramara, this production attempts to modernize the musical and bring it to a Gen Z audience, resulting in an experience that is as mildly chaotic as it is entertaining.

The musical itself (music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin) follows a group of eccentric children competing in a spelling bee, each bearing their unique quirks and backstories. It’s a journey through the trials and tribulations of adolescence, underscored by the competitive nature of a spelling bee.

A large part of modernizing the musical is through the stylized spelling bee setting. Designed by Tata Tuviera, you won’t see your usual school theater or hall or even gymnasium here. The setting is a techy-looking thing that is more fit for a variety show or concert stage with its exposed musicians, overhead screens, suspended hexagons and vaguely bleacher-like steps that will remind you, as an afterthought, that you’re supposed to be attending a school event. It looked great, but these choices often clashed with the immersion that is pivotal to this show’s unique charm. The set felt more like a nod to ‘spelling’ and ‘bee’ as separate themes rather than a coherent setting of a spelling bee event.

A big draw of this show is the audience participation element. It does a lot of the heavy lifting in making this show memorably entertaining. Four audience members (likely celebs) are made to be actual spelling contestants for the entirety of the first act, eliminated only until they finally misspell a word. Roping in celebs to make their little cameos is part of this show’s enduring charm. It’s fun to learn which celebs will be dragged up on stage–unrehearsed but briefed beforehand–and watch them try to make sense of the environment they’ve been thrown into. The most entertaining this show gets is in seeing whether they’ll just sit there a bit deer-in-headlights-like (celebs, they’re just like us!), chew scenery, or surprisingly blend in. Of course, seeing if they’ll triumphantly spell genuinely challenging words adds a thrill to the proceedings. It’s such a riotous first act that when the second act rolls around and the actual cast is left to its own devices, the stage feels bare and bereft of whatever magnetic humor makes the show such an experience.

As for the actual performers, it is a mix of seasoned theater actors, celebrities, and influencers that make up the cast. Curiously, Maramara enlisted young adults to play the children in these roles. Despite all performers doing creditable work here, there seems to be a level of humorous irony lost in not getting older actors to play these roles. That said, Becca Coates and Justine Narciso as Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre respectively superbly played up both the comedy and emotion in their characters. Krystal Brimner and Angela Ken sweetly and even ethereally played their Olive Ostrovsky, and AC Bonifacio and Shanaia Gomez impressively showed off their ‘triple threat’ talents in this theater debut. Shaun Ocrisma was also a lovable Leaf Coneybear, but really showed his range playing his other role as one of Logainne’s dads.

In this Spelling Bee, the essence of the spelling bee event, which should’ve served as the narrative’s core, is hampered by Maramara’s stylistic choices to modernize with Tuviera’s technological flourishes. The venue’s sound quality, which sometimes made it difficult to follow the dialogue and lyrics, doesn’t help with the vague sense of pandemonium and disconnection. The show teeters between charming and chaotic and whether it’s more of one or the other, only a visit for yourself to ‘Putnam County’ may bring an answer.


Tickets: Php 1900 – Php 3300
Show Dates: February 24 to March 17, 2024
Venue: Power Mac Center Spotlight Black Box Theater, Circuit Makati
Running Time: approx. 2 hours (w/ 10-min intermission)
Credits: Missy Maramara (director), Dingdong Rosales (assistant director), Rony Fortich (musical director), Franco Ramos (choreographer), Tata Tuviera (production designer), D Cortezano (lighting designer), Aji Manalo (sound designer), Joyce Garcia (video designer)
Cast: Becca Coates, Justine Narciso, AC Bonifacio, Shanaia Gomez, Diego Aranda, Luis Marcelo, Krystal Brimner, Angela Ken, Elian Dominguez, Shaun Ocrisma, Joshua Ramirez, Ron Balgos, Liesl Batucan-Del Rosario, Audie Gemora, Robbie Guevara, Nyoy Volante, Jordan Andrews
Company: The Sandbox Collective

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