University of Michigan Theatre takes the musical "Spelling Bee" on the road to Encore in Dexter


Performance photo of the cast singing and dancing during The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Photo by Peter Smith.

Can you spell collaboration?

Vincent Cardinal, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre Department and a board member at Dexter’s Encore Theatre, and Dan Cooney, Encore’s artistic director, see advantages for everyone in bringing a U-M production to the city, which they will do with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

“The Encore, with its intimate setting and commitment to producing Broadway-worthy productions, is the ideal venue for this collaboration,” Cardinal said in a press release. “Artistic Director, Dan Cooney, and I have been talking about a collaboration for quite some time now and we are thrilled that it is finally coming to fruition!”

Coming to fruition is what The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is all about. It’s a funny, goofy, but sensitive musical about a spelling bee. But it’s really about adolescence and the agony of growing up told through song, dance, humor, and spelling.

Cardinal is a director who gets the best out of his student casts. The spellers each have their quirks, anxieties, and troubles but for one shining moment, they get a chance to be in the spotlight. Cardinal and his cast balance the awkward humor of being young with spotlight moments that focus on the thoughts and worries of each character. 

The show, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, plays on the usual cliches of nerdy young people who are not in with the cool kids. But the play then gives each speller a chance to confront the terrors of growing up and their aspirations for the future.

Abby Aziz plays Rona, a past winner of the Bee and now one of the judges. Aziz has a strong voice and gives Rona a funny, dazed look that suits the character who hasn’t gotten over her moment of triumph.

The other adult character is the vice principal, Panch. Caleb McArthur has some of the best lines in the play when spellers ask him to “use the word in a sentence.” McArthur has an anxiety attack that reminds the audience that adults do not leave all their worries behind them.

The other actors play characters younger than themselves, but perhaps with still fresh memories of what it was like in middle school. 

Brendan Dallare plays Chip, who comes to the bee in his Boy Scout uniform. He is the reigning champ but the hormones are starting to kick in and cause him some discomfort. Dallare moves smoothly from the well-organized scout to the confused and distracted young man.

Michael Fabisch plays Leaf, the goofy kid who sneaks into the contest and suddenly has the spotlight on him. Fabisch is surprised by how good he spells after singing “I’m Not Smart.” Fabisch captures Leaf’s good-natured personality and his bewilderment.

Ian Coursey plays William Barfee. This is the kid who knows it all and has a magic foot. In fact, Barfee spells out the words with his feet. Coursey gives Barfee just the right swagger while also portraying his awkward inability to make friends.

Logan Saad plays Olive, a girl who loves to spell as a way to escape her home life. Saad extolls her enthusiasm in the song “My Friend, the Dictionary.” Later she sings “The I Love You Song” with her wayward parents.

Alyssa Sunew plays Marcy, a student driven by her parents to be the best. Sunew captures this overachiever with a stern, all-business demeanor and rising frustration. She sings “I Speak Six Languages,” which is both an accomplishment and a burden.

Stephanie Reuning-Scherer plays Schwartzy, the daughter of two gay fathers. She is also driven to be her best by her parents. Reuninng-Scherer gets to update the dialog for her intensely political character and plays her fierce and determined to make her own way.

Aidan Jones plays Mitch Mahoney, who is just out of jail and determined to turn his life around. Mahoney is the guy who escorts the losers off the stage and gives them a carton of juice. More importantly, he empathizes with the losers and sings the comforting song “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.”

Set designer Sarah Tanner has created an eye-popping set of a middle school gym, complete with a basketball net. 

Tyler Driskill and his band are visible on the stage through the door of the gym. As always Driskill and his band are excellent.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The University of Michigan’s Music Theatre Department production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will continue at the Encore Theatre, 7714 Ann Arbor Road, Dexter at 7:30 pm on October 20-21, at 2 pm on October 21-22, at 7:30 pm on October 26-28, and at 2 pm on October 28-29. For tickets, call 734-268-6200 or visit