Everybody remembers that awkward moment when we had to grow up. For a lot of people, this is something that we’d rather forget, or have forgotten outright. All the confusion, frustrations, and catharsis that comes with changing bodies and perspectives on social expectations, attraction, and what it means to go outside their respective comfort zones and everything that comes with the cruelly simplified adage “coming of age”.

For the initial offering of the Sandbox Collective on its 10th year anniversary, in cooperation with ABS-CBN Star Magic, they present William Finn’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Directed by Missy Maramara, and featuring a cast of talented young artists: Shania Gomez, Diego Aranda, Krystal Brimner, Shaun Ocrisma, Justine Narciso, Joshua Ramirez, with theater stalwarts Liesl Batucan-Del Rosario, Audie Gemora, and Nyoy Volante.

Sandbox Collective Spelling Bee
The Sandbox Collective’s staging of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (Photo Credit: Ryan Robert Flores)

Written by William Finn (Falsettos, A New Brain), the story follows six grade schoolers as they navigate their respective paths towards adolescence. From the introspective and sensitive Olive Ostrovsky (Brimner), the abrasive and perpetually congested William Barfee (Ramirez), the golden child-slash-ex champion Chip Tolentino (Aranda), the hyperactive and imaginative Leaf Coneybear (Ocrisma), the deadpan and multi-talented Marcie Park (Gomez), and the youngest, but often the most driven contestant Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Narciso). Rounding out the cast, the pronouncer Vice Principal Panch (Gemora), the mildly threatening comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (Volante), and the saccharine optimist Rona Peretti (Batucan-Del Rosario).

Over the course of the show, four “guest spellers” are invited from members of the audience and become part of the action onstage. Much has been said about it being an “interactive” show, but really, that’s the extent of the interactivity apart from breaking the fourth wall from time to time. Which isn’t here or there to be perfectly honest: it may be interactive for the four who participate, but for the rest of the audience, the novelty wears off quickly, and easily crosses into tedium.

Sandbox Collective Spelling Bee
Audie Gemora as Panch is delightfully neurotic. (Photo Credit: Ryan Robert Flores)

As the play goes on, it was apparent that some choices were made, some worked with great effect and some less so. Big, standout performances come from the three adult support characters: Nyoy Volante exuded a gruff attitude towards his role as the comfort counselor but eventually gives way to a warm, almost brotherly affection for the spellers who get eliminated in the latter part of the story. Audie Gemora as Panch is delightfully neurotic. Liesl Batucan-Del Rosario serves as the emotional center of the show, which is surprising, since Rona Peretti is so susceptible to becoming a piece of furniture in other productions. Batucan-Del Rosario steals every scene she’s in, her clear, caramel mezzo cuts through the sometimes messy arrangement, and is genuinely thrilling.

Sandbox Collective Spelling Bee
Nyoy Volante (far right) exuded a gruff attitude towards his role as the comfort counselor but eventually gives way to a warm, almost brotherly affection for the spellers who get eliminated. (Photo Credit: Ryan Robert Flores)

The vocal performances of the “kids” are good, but there should be more attention paid to building character beyond the rudimentary inflections of youth. The tics, the fidgeting, tugging at clothes, and other physical indications of youthful insecurity looks very rehearsed and performative rather than organic. The main conceit of the show is that you have adult actors playing grade schoolers, and while there were moments where that kind of childhood naïveté shone through, it was inconsistent at best. Which is not to say that the show wasn’t entertaining, just that the suspension of disbelief was erratic. A large part of it was the perplexing set design. You may be excused if you think you walked into a noontime variety show, which was jarring since this isn’t supposed to be the glossy final championship that’s broadcast on ESPN, but rather the regional qualifiers. That’s why in previous incarnations of the show, it takes place in a gymnasium or school auditorium. The “bee” theme is overwhelming onstage at the Power Mac black box, with giant hexagons galore: It is an idea, just not one that adds much value to the show given its actual context.

Sandbox Collective Spelling Bee
Leisl Batucan-Del Rosario steals every scene she’s in. Her clear, caramel mezzo cuts through the sometimes messy arrangement, and is genuinely thrilling. (Photo Credit: Ryan Robert Flores)

All things considered, it is a strong start for the Sandbox Collective in what is their first full season after the pandemic. The participation of the “guest” spellers was fun, and adds a measure of unpredictability. And the cast competently brings Finn’s musical to life, and most importantly, they were able to successfully build up to a satisfying climax that did not disappoint even if a cursory listen to the cast album should already tell you who won. It is dynamic and entertaining and definitely will “bee” a fun night out.

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