Risley Theatre was buzzing with excitement as Cornell’s Melodramatics Theatre Company performed “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” featuring live music, improvisational humor and intense spelling challenges.
Founded in 2004, Melodramatics Theatre Company is an entirely student-run acting group dedicated to producing high-quality theatrical performances. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” — Melos’ second production of the academic year — played sold-out shows on April 20, 21 and 22.
“I really love ‘25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ as a show, and I [think it’s] so perfect for Cornell,” said Tiffany Kumar ’24, who played speller Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre. “A bunch of nerdy overachiever children dealing with the pressures of validation and academic competition? I think we can all see a bit of ourselves in these characters.”
Premiering on Broadway in 2005, the Tony Award-winning musical comedy follows a diverse group of six preteens vying for the ultimate spelling championship. From type A polyglot Marcy Park (Emily Pollack ’24), to the magical, rasp-voiced William Barfée (Justin Lee ’26), the competitors share amusing tales from their personal lives — all while attempting to correctly spell increasingly challenging words.
First-time director Olivia Scaperotti ’25 led and choreographed the show alongside assistant directors Cameron Howland ’26 and Darby Krugel ’24. Scaperotti said she was eager to put on an equally fun and meaningful performance.
“My approach was very grounded in fleshing out the characters in the show,” Scaperotti said. “It’s easy to make characters of the spellers because they’re silly and awkward, but the show has very deep themes that are easy to overlook if not discussed properly behind the scenes.”
Jana Mildner ’24 — who played the loveable cape-wearing contestant Leaf Coneybear — auditioned for the production because she was drawn to its humorous and heartwarming nature.
“What makes ‘Spelling Bee’ so special is how the cast is truly an ensemble, while still highlighting each character’s story individually,” Mildner said. “I think every speller learns from one another, and that is a dynamic that isn’t directly written into the script, but is discovered by the actors.”
The comedic two-act show included spelling-related jokes, jabs at Collegetown potholes and ad-libbed quips. It also featured dramatic musical numbers including “Pandemonium,” “I Speak Six Languages,” “Magic Foot” and an entirely slow-motion sequence.
Music director Thomas Myers ’26 attended the closing show and said he was excited to see the cast and crew’s hard work on full display.
“It was really fun to see everyone’s talent and passion come together,” Myers said, having taught the cast the musical sequences. “It’s just an amazing experience.”
Beyond telling the stories of the six featured spellers, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is unique in that an additional four contestants are pulled from the crowd. The participants are immersed in the story as they attempt to dance along with the cast and spell challenging, made-up words.
At the closing show, the volunteers were tasked with spelling words like “apoop” and “flugalume,” teasingly presented by the spelling bee facilitators Douglas Panch (Brianna Ramnath ’26) and Rona Lisa Perretti (Caroline He ’24).
“When they got on stage, I’d only tell the volunteers a recap of the [spelling bee] rules,” He said. “We didn’t want our volunteers to act — we wanted something unexpected.”
The participants were continuously called up until they spelled a word wrong, only to be serenaded off stage with a hug and boxed apple juice provided by ex-con “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Thomas Stamey ’24).
“In one of the shows, I had to drag a volunteer back on stage since they walked off while the song was starting,” Stamey said. “It definitely kept us on our toes to make sure the show always stuck to how it was supposed to continue, regardless of what happened with the volunteers.”
According to Scaperotti, stage manager Ethan Ordower ’25 would pull participants off the street during rehearsals to simulate live-audience interaction. The cast was also encouraged to poke fun at the assistant directors to practice spontaneous humor.
“Admittedly, improv is not my specialty, but this show pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me much more confident in my improvisational skills,” Mildner said. “The improv-ed parts were also what I found funniest by the end of the rehearsal process.”
Some cast members had the freedom to infuse their own creativity into their performances. During one scene on closing night, Kumar, who is an alderperson for Ithaca Ward 4 on the Ithaca Common Council, used her character to passionately and rapidly express her political views on climate change and corporate responsibility.
“During intermission I usually asked the rest of the cast to give me a political topic to rant about, and I just pick one in the moment and go off the cuff,” Kumar said. “I wanted it to be authentic and not too polished, and what I say depends a lot on the energy of the audience too.”
With long rehearsal hours and packed class schedules, some of the cast expressed difficulty aligning cast and crew rehearsal schedules.
“It really is no easy feat putting on a production like this at a school where everyone is so dedicated to their academic work,” Scaperotti said.
Regardless, the cast demonstrated commitment to pulling off such an ambitious spring show.
“In the theater world, the week leading up to the show is often called ‘Hell Week’ because of the long, intense rehearsals,” Mildner said. “‘Hell Week’ is probably my favorite because there is something special about seeing all of your hard work come together, and it is a blast to spend so much time with your castmates.”
The cast members all said they have developed genuine friendships from their time at Melos. While some cast and crew members returned from previous productions, this semester’s newcomers expressed excitement in reinvigorating their passion for theater.
“Joining Melos might have been the best decision I’ve made since coming to Cornell,” Kumar said. “I am so grateful to have been welcomed into this group and to tell this story with them.”
As Melos’ fourth production since COVID-19, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”’s success was especially gratifying following pandemic-related budget and organizational challenges. Going forward, Melos is excited to step up their production scale and execute more diverse musical productions.
“Everyone is [here at Melos] because they care about this so much,” Scaperotti said, expressing gratitude to her team. “It’s cool to see theater building back presence on campus, and I hope it continues to grow.”