Nerd is the word


Dare 2 Defy presents The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee

By Morgan Laurens

Photo: (l-r) Logainne (Tori Kocher), Marcy (Abby Land), William (Brennan Paulin), and Leaf (Brett Norgaard) in D2D’s 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee photos: Mackensie King

Galoubet. Capybara. Tittup. Periscii. Cystitis. Syzygy. How many of these words do you know? One, maybe two if you’re lucky? Run and get someone to use them in a sentence before you grab a dictionary—go ahead, I’ll wait. Now, because we’re good sports here at the Dayton City Paper (or perhaps just masochists), we’ll step up to the mic and take a stab at that lovely little list of words, too. As it turns out, we do recognize one: “syzygy.” And that’s because we’re used to seeing it in our Netflix queues (it’s the title of a well-worn X-Files episode; it means a configuration of celestial bodies). As for the rest? Well, one word sounds vaguely erotic, another I would bet my lunch money is some sort of mammal, and the rest have either too many vowels or too few.

Of course, this is all child’s play compared to what those poor kids in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee have to go through on stage every night. Olive, William, Logainne, Marcy, Leaf, and Chip, the middle schoolers at the center of Dare 2 Defy’s new musical production, are the sort of pre-teens that could spell “weltanschauung” with their eyes closed and probably tack on the definition for good measure, too. They’re also the sort you might discover snuggling up to a dog-eared dictionary at night.

Though Putnam takes place in a school, you won’t find any jocks here. Just debilitating peanut allergies, obfuscating lisps, and kids who have last names like Barfée (it’s pronounced Bar-FAY, but still). Your inner bully might be itching to launch a few spitballs onto the stage, but you’ll want to reconsider once you learn just how bang-on Putnam is in depicting the very specific awkwardness of the geeky outsider teen.

Hey, fellow well-adjusted adults, remember those years? The age of involuntary erections, of hopeless crushes, and, most of all, of finding something you’re not completely terrible at? There’s a little bit of all that in Putnam, which wins its audience over with charm, humor, and even (gasp!) closure.

As Director Matthew Smith relays to me, “We spend an hour and a half looking at [the character’s] eccentricities and the things that make them unique individuals. At the end, we get to learn if they grew of out of their awkwardness, if they embraced it, and how it affects them as an adult in the world. That’s why I think it’s important that all the characters are fully developed because I think the audience will relate with at least one or two of them and find some personal qualities that they have experienced.”

In short, each of the characters in Putnam has the opportunity to be the sort of glorious mess that teenagers (or any of us) are so rarely afforded. They are by turns hormonal, arrogant, intense, charming, and quirky—sometimes all in the same breath. Despite its lighthearted tone, William Finn, who composed the music and wrote the lyrics, clearly knows the discomforts of being part of an insulated social system (we all remember middle school, right?) when you are resolutely not a social person, or a cafeteria person, or even a life person.

“On the surface it’s this light musical comedy, but with all things theatre, once you look at it a little bit differently, it really has some truth to it,” Smith says.

Sure, it’s funny—h-i-l-a-r-i-o-u-s even, if you believe everything you read on the internet—but what Putnam really does best is get at the root of how it feels to be a gawky fish out of water, mastering a complex language few others can understand.

The characters here are wrapped up in a story that doesn’t need to appeal to a perfectly coiffed, letter-jacket-wearing crowd. It’s a middle school musical that succeeds precisely because it doesn’t have the “advantage” of a prepubescent Zac Efron or scads of perkily pigtailed cheerleaders to bolster box office numbers. Never mind the two Tony wins and a boatload of other awards hiding in Putnam’s closet.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee creates a narrative that seems familiar, especially to everyone who remembers high school as a series of swirlies and atomic wedgies. It’s based on experiences from your own teenage years, which so often feel like an endless tunnel. More to the point, you’ll be scooping your brain matter off the floor when you hear perennial overachiever Marcy Park (played by Abby Land) spell “qaimaqam” correctly without batting an eye. Sigh. Test yourself—or contemplate how a just God could possibly bring a word with two Qs and zero Us into existence—with a trip to the theatre.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee takes the stage Friday, Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 7 at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Black Box Theatre in the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. The show will also appear Friday, Jan. 13 and Saturday, Jan. 14 at 8 p.m. at the Renaissance Theatre in the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park N. in downtown Dayton. Tickets range from $15 to $30 and are available at for the Schuster performance or by calling 937.223.4ART (4278) for the DAI performance. The show is recommended for ages 13 and up. For more information, please visit

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Reach DCP freelance writer Morgan Laurens at

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