Conservatory brings pandemonium with Spring Musical


Alison Yang

Shareen Chahal (11) as Leaf Coneybear. The eccentric homeschooled speller becomes an underdog of the bee.

In thirty minutes, Rona Lisa Peretti, played by Samvita Gautham (12), will take the stage, pink pumps and purple power suit bursting out from the beige set. “Syzygy,” she spells, as the cheers in her flashback erupt. A medley of characters follow, some egotistical like Jason Shim’s (10) William Barfée, some angry like Anthony Zhao’s (12) Mitch Mahone and others reserved like Selina Xu’s (11) Olive Ostrovsky. For an hour and a half, the show brings the audience along for an orthographic ride, both literally and figuratively.

But for now, it’s just the cast onstage. A drone of energy permeates the circular blob, whose members are anticipatory and united following music director Catherine Snider’s warmups. Performing arts director Laura Lang-Ree steps into the center. First, she presents the legacy robe to Lucy Feng (12), an honor given to the ensemble member who best exemplifies the show with grace, enthusiasm and effort. Lucy, a choice which garnered, in Lang-Ree’s words, “little surprise,” runs around the stage, hugging each cast member and blessing props. 

The cast members then hold hands and form an energetic circle around Lang-Ree. Quiet humming grows into cheers as she reminds them of their efforts and to savor the show. This year’s musical, the result of months of efforts starting in August, still has four months to go until the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, she reminds them.

“It’s joyful to watch [everything come together],” Lang-Ree said. “Seeing cast members in costumes, then seeing the show lit. Watching the vision in your head come to life and actually realize, it’s spectacular.”

With a loud shout of “Sex on 3!” the cast disperses into their positions to prepare for the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” This year’s spring musical was performed at 7 p.m. from March 23 to March 25 in the Patil Theater, with a matinee at 2 p.m. Saturday. Student and senior tickets were $7 and adult tickets were $15. 

After Peretti’s grand entrance marking the start of the show, the residents of Putnam County flood the stage as the lighting shifts from a mystic purple to a beaming yellow. Singing harmoniously with bright smiles, they introduce the rules and themselves as they draw the audience into the spelling bee. 

As the spelling rounds continue, contestants begin to notice the spelling bee’s unfair system. Expressing their frustration with the bee, chaos explodes on stage, introducing the song “Pandemonium” to the audience. 

“[Pandemonium] is the first time you see everyone sucked into their characters,” assistant stage manager Aastha Mangla (12) said. “Even if they don’t have very active roles all the time, you can see them making small decisions on how to make it chaotic. I could watch that number a million times and still find new things to be amazed by.”

Following intermission, the spelling bee continues with Kris Estrada’s (12) Chip Tolentino bemoaning his “unfortunate distraction” after seeing Marigold, played by Sonya Apsey (11), in the stands. Zubin Khera (12), ruthless with the bell of failure, culls the competition, sending audience volunteers, Alice Tao’s (11) wunderkind Marcy Park, Shareen Chahal’s (11) goofy Leaf Coneybear and more to fresh-on-parole comfort counselor Mitch Mahone’s arms.

Finally, only William and Olive are left onstage. Between “The I Love You Song,” Olive’s chimerical and tear-jerking fantasy of a complete family, a cameo from Jesus, “Magic Foot” and William’s boisterous ode to his prodigious spelling foot, the two awkwardly dance around each other, culminating in the “Olive and Barfée Pas de Deux.” With an encouraging nod from Olive, William seizes victory as confetti and an ensemble cover the stage.

As the lights return and the production concludes, so marks another successful showing of the spring musical. But behind the show’s artistic beauty lies the real magic of theater — the performers themselves. Simon Kirjner (9), who plays Zeek Enderson, reflects on the relationship developed between the cast throughout production.

“Chemistry is very important,” Simon said. “There’s a lot of scenes where you have to interact and a lot of the show is reactions. You have to understand what’s going to happen and how others are going to do it. We become a big family…some describe [theater] as a cult even.”

Olive, Selina Xu (11), and her parents, seniors Sawyer Lai and Alan Jiang, in “I Love You.” A rousing ballad, the song is Olive’s fantasy of a complete and supporting family. (Alison Yang)

Bouncing off of each other in a comedic and fast-paced show like this musical requires the actors to have a good grasp on their characters, as well as synergy between all cast members. Zubin, who plays the mercurial Vice Principal Doug Panch, describes his character development process.

“[Characterization] comes out in rehearsal,” Zubin said. “Rehearsing over and over, trying something new every time, changing it up and finding what works and what doesn’t is the key. [Panch] sets the tempo in the show, and later in the process, I realized there’s a lot of nitpicky things [with tempo and inflection].”

To aid actors, the production included several days focused solely on character work. Furthermore, each cast member received personal notes after every rehearsal. Aastha describes her experience giving notes.

“I’ve never been in a Harker production with bad chemistry,” Aastha said. “I’m lucky that Harker’s developed a space where actors receiving notes always want to improve. The friendship [formed by proximity] also helps people not take [notes] personally. The [cast] trusts me and I’m grateful for that.”

Fully embracing theatrical media as a means for expression, the actors make each role authentically theirs, imbuing personal flair in every step and song. Ananya Das (10), who plays the Bee, is no exception, buzzing brilliantly across the stage as she supplies sung instructions with student council and comforts cut competitors with Mitch Mahoney.

“At face value, [the Bee] is pretty boring,” she said. “But [when I] made my character react to situations, [when I] really tried to give them a story, I created a fuller version of the character than just a mascot. It made them a lot more engaging for myself and the audience.”

In August, the cast will head to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, enacting the spelling bee once more. Connecting communal love for theater with camaraderie, the musical members’ vibrant performance is only made possible by the encouraging environment they have fostered. From long hours spent rehearsing to late nights of practice, a shared affinity for acting drew the cast together, as Zubin explains.

“As a cast, we have to build a lot of trust [for Fringe],” Zubin said. “When it comes to [theater], we’ve bonded over our passion. Everybody’s suffering, but we know it’s going to be worth it in the end. It’s a free environment where you can really let loose and try anything without fear of embarrassment.”

Every night, the spelling bee ends with the actors beaming at the crowd, clutching confetti and each other. For four shows, the crowd rises as the performers bow. They point backstage towards the crew as the applause continues. The excitement pours out to the lobby where flowers and adoration wait. Yet when APs and finals move into the spotlight, the hype may become more of a drone.

But the buzz will return. In four months, the cast and crew of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will bow to cheers and applause again, this time across the ocean in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“[Fringe] is like candy for artists,” Lang-Ree said. “We’re showing our work to the world. It’s a big honor to have one of the 33 [high school] slots in the world to perform. The cast is in amazing shape, they understand the bigger picture and they’re a very loving and supportive group.”