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‘Spelling Bee’ goes high-tech

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 26, 2024 5:00 am

One of the marketable features of Tony-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is that you can pull it off with minimal production: a few microphones, a spotlight here and there, maybe a call bell on a desk to announce wrong spellings. 

For its 10th season opener, The Sandbox Collective goes the opposite route, staging the 2005 William Finn/Rachel Sheinkin musical with high-tech bells and whistles: an elaborate gameshow-like façade, bleachers for the six contestants (plus audience plants during our media preview) and digital screens above stage to spell out the words, telegraph our characters’ anxieties and inner struggles, and occasionally pan a camera or two out to the audience.

The heart of the production remains the same, though: it’s a musical about six grade school kids with precocious skills vying for a spelling bee championship. But beneath it is a text reflecting on the pressures of competition, and the ensuing mental health implications for children — which makes it a natural for Sandbox, which often highlights mental health issues and discussions in its production choices, whether it’s Dani Girl, Every Brilliant Thing, or this year’s lineup of shows with themes revolving around “coming of age and discovery.”

The Sandbox Collective’s 10th year opens with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Director Missy Maramara, also an actress and educator, reflects on that level: “Spelling Bee is about gifted children under the immense pressure of high-level competition, precision and scrutiny. I think this is a great lens to question the effect of social media on the younger generations, especially their mental health.”

But the production is also quite F-U-N, with a star-studded cast that merges talents from ABS-CBN’s Star Magic with several Sandbox Collective notables. Star Magic talents AC Bonifacio (alternating with Shanaia Gomez) plays the preternaturally perfect Marcy Park, who speaks “six languages,” does perfect cartwheels onstage and plays the piano backwards; the inconveniently priapic contestant Chip Tolentino is played by Diego Aranda (alternate Luis Marcelo); center stage is Krystal Brimner (alternating with Angela Ken), playing humble dictionary fiend Olive Ostrovsky, who has a standout performance in The I Love You Song; Elian Dominguez gets comic points playing the awkward homeschooler Leaf Coneybear (alternating with Shaun Ocrisma).

Liesl Batucan-Del Rosario as former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Paretti, and Philstage president Audie Gemora

As Star Magic manager Laurenti Dyogi noted, this is the first time any of them have done theater work. As an ensemble, they click: the comical notes hit, the physical choreography matches the awkwardness of adolescence, and they show a willingness to improvise. (Every show involves a few audience members enlisted into the spelling bee for several opening rounds, including a game “Stress” Drilon for the Thursday media preview I attended.)

Also shining onstage are Sandbox Collective’s Becca Coates (following her lead role in Dani Girl) playing the lisping but determined Loggaine Schwartzandgrubennierre, set on a course of winning at all costs by her two helicopter gay dads; and “Magic Foot” speller William Barfee (“That’s ‘Bar-FAY’!”) is played by Joshy Ramirez (altenate Ron Balgos).

“Magic Foot” speller William Barfee is played by Joshy Ramirez.

Off to the side at the judge’s table are veterans Liesl Batucan-Del Rosario as former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Paretti, and Philstage president Audie Gemora in a masterful turn as Vice Principal Douglas Panch. “King of Acoustic Pop” Nyoy Volante does the walk-off juicebox honors as Mitch Mahoney, bagging himself a standout gospel-like vocal solo in the process (Prayer of the Comfort Counselor). And to the side is music director Ronny Fortich, who keeps this musical humming at a brisk pace.

Preternaturally perfect Marcy Park (played by Star Magic talent Shanaia Gomez) has mad skills.

It’s cool that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee gets to update its words and taglines for new stagings, so this time around (slight spoiler here), we’re told that in the future, Lorraine, channeling both Scooby-Doo’s Velma and Tracy Flick, ends up as “US Education Secretary under President Taylor Swift.” It’s perhaps the most overt nod to the severely divided cultural landscape in America at this time, and its possible implications for the future.

Olive Ostrovsky (played by Krystal Brimner) successfully spells “BOANTHROPY.

Having been hauled onstage for a past local production of Putnam County, I know that it’s more fun to actually sit out in the audience watching, rather than joining the cast onstage and eventually being tripped up by an unspellable word. (Mine was “crapaud,” a tree toad from Trinidad.) This is part of Sandbox Collective’s DNA as well: audience participation, a bit of improv onstage, some learning, maybe some healing. The cast makes this production bubble and shine, so you’re caught up in the fun as well. (Though a somewhat muddy audio mix in Power Mac Center Spotlight Black Box Theater makes it difficult at times to hear the words being enunciated by Gemora.)

And the extra bells and whistles? The audience will appreciate seeing the correct spellings flashed above the stage, and the stage façade adds to the noontime show feel of this at times localized update of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Theater that’s enjoyable and not too mentally demanding may be its own kind of therapy in these weird and troubled times.

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Catch The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Power Mac Center Spotlight Black Box Theater, Circuit Makati until March 17. For tickets and show buying, contact Anna Santamaria at [email protected]. Visit for more details.