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Friction Theatre’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Heals Our Inner Child While We’re Rolling in the Aisles

Reviewer: Lisa Purchase

Venue: Friction Theatre

Before I hit Send to publish this review, I went online and purchased tickets to see the show on  Saturday. I saw on opening night, and now I’m paying to see it again. Twice in the same  weekend. Because I enjoyed it so much. 

That’s it. That’s the review. 

If you need to know more: 

When I attended The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Midland’s Creative 360, I was  stepping into new territory, as I’ve not attended anything by The Friction Theatre company  before. But I at least knew what to expect from the show, as I’ve seen Spelling Bee several  times before. It’s a cute musical about six weird kids at a spelling bee, and the three adults  running the bee. There’s some snappy tunes, and the script is pretty funny. There’s some  audience participation that has the potential to be pretty funny. That’s what I mostly  remembered. I’ve liked the show well enough in the past, but if not for reviewing it I probably  would have written this one off as “been there done that” and not bothered with this production.  After all, what could a small scrappy independent theatre group bring to it, that bigger more  established organizations haven’t already covered? 

Let me tell you. 

First of all, in the right hands this script is nothing short of brilliant. The spellers — played to  perfection by Sam Nowak (Chip Tolentino), Erin Arndt (Logainne Schwartzandgrubeniere),  Jamie Miller (Leaf Coneybear), Josh Abrams (William Barfeé), Ava Mata (Marcy Park), and  Lexie Schultz (Olive Ostrovsky) — each get their own spotlight with a musical number that  reveals their individual story arc, diving deep into who they are and … eventually … how they  overcome their issues. The three adults (also perfectly played) — Megan Krause Meyer as  Rona Lisa Peretti, Dan Kettler as Vice Principal Panch, and Danessa Hellus as “comfort  counselor” Michelle Mahoney —get their own smaller story arcs and participate in the  production numbers and fantasy dream-sequences that support the spellers stories. The  musical spotlights swing from energetic showstoppers with over-the-top choreography for the  whole cast (and the hapless volunteer spellers), to tender ballads quietly tugging at our  heartstrings and bringing tears to our eyes. When done right, the audience identifies with the  characters and their various neurosis, and deeply feels their tragedies and triumphs.  

This cast and director made the most of this deceptively complex script and score, providing the  pacing, the acting chops, and the vocal talent to really bring home the emotional heights and  depths of this story. Just the opening number practically brought the audience to their feet for a  standing ovation. The layered harmonies, snappy lyrics, and energetic sincerity hit us right  between the eyes, and we were hooked. It was immediately delightful. The vocal abilities of this  cast far exceed any reasonable expectations, and the actors thoroughly inhabit their quirky  characters throughout the show. The journey from laughter to tears to laughter again were  seamless and nearly continuous. There was not a lackluster moment or performance in the  show.

I hesitate to list stand-outs as I would have to actually list the whole cast. This is a very talented  ensemble and every person pulls their weight onstage. I could go on and on about each and  every one of them. I will show some restraint and only say that Josh Abrams’ William Barfeé is  delightfully UNHINGED but heartwarming every second he’s on stage, whether he is the focus  at that moment or whether he’s is merely background to the current action. 

My only possible complaint is that Danessa Hellus’s Michelle Mahoney is gravely under-utilized  in this production. Danessa is known to be a monster of talent in this region, and perhaps her  role could have been showcased just a bit more to recognize what she brings to the stage. 

As for the theatre company, apparently I’m late to the party. The Friction Theatre (a nonprofit  arts organization dedicated to producing new and unique theatre in Midland, Michigan) has  been rapidly climbing the ladder in the Great Lakes Bay region theatre world, bringing top-notch  performers, edgy scripts, and snappy performances that are well worth seeing. I’m partial to a  gritty little “warehouse” theatre such as this (having been part of one myself at one time), as  they can “get away with” things a more established theatre would have to cut or tip-toe around.  There is a moment of artistic license in this show where Schwartzy editorializes for a bit (which  will delight some, and annoy others). Because they don’t have much budget or big sponsors to  speak of, they don’t always have to play nice. 

Even when doing something tried and true like Spelling Bee, they’re going to bring something  that takes it to the next level … what they lack in budget they more than make up for in talent.  After the show, I found out this production was built on only three and a half week’s rehearsals.  It’s a testament to the reputation of Director Bill Anderson Jr. and The Friction Theatre company  that they were able to draw this level of talent to the auditions and cast a show that could  achieve this professional level of entertainment in such a short amount of time. 

The Friction Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical coming-of-age  story that you should absolutely see this weekend or next. With an impeccable cast, relatable  themes, hilarious jokes, audience engagement, and vocal talent that will knock your socks off,  this is the perfect opportunity to enjoy quality theatre in our area. 

Performances are 8:00 Thursday, Friday, and Saturday for two weekends: February 22 – 24 and  February 29 – March 2. Link to tickets can be found at https://www.thefrictiontheatre.org/ spellingbee . 

P.S. Get there a little early and sign up to be one of the volunteer spellers onstage. Don’t be  scared, they’ll take good care of you. 

P.P.S. Don’t bring your kids. Despite being “about” kids, this show is rated PG-13. P.P.P.S. I can’t believe I forgot Jesus. You’ll love it when he shows up. 

Check out other upcoming projects by The Friction Theatre at  

https://www.thefrictiontheatre.org/, and other Creative 360 events at https://becreative360.org/

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