MIHS actors shine onstage, win Fifth Avenue Theatre awards

Gerstel, Atkinson and Benaroya garner honors in leading roles.

A trio of local performers were buzzing with excitement when The Fifth Avenue Theatre of Seattle released the results of its education awards honoring high school musicals in a virtual event on June 26.

Mercer Island High School (MIHS) actors Molly Atkinson, Devon Benaroya and Kyle Gerstel won awards for outstanding performances in their leading roles in the school’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” In the two-cast musical theater experience, Atkinson brought the role of Olive to life in both casts, and Benaroya and Gerstel each placed Barfee into the spotlight in their respective casts.

MIHS drama director Daniela Melgar said the stellar actors were part of the magic and joy of musical theater that the entire cast and crew displayed onstage during the program’s return to in-person musicals since performing “Mamma Mia!” in the fall of 2019.

“All three of them are incredibly hard workers and incredibly dedicated to their craft. They do their actor homework, make choices, take direction, are kind, respectful, and always part of the team. I am honored and humbled to have worked with three such enthusiastic and talented students,” Melgar said.

“Spelling Bee” performances took place in April and May and Melgar said that Fifth Avenue — which marked its 20th anniversary of bestowing the awards — sent adjudicators to MIHS for a full evaluation of the production.

The Reporter asked Atkinson, Benaroya and Gerstel some questions regarding their performances, and here is some insight into their experiences.

Tell me about your role, what it means to you and how you can relate to it.

Atkinson: I had the honor of playing Olive, a smart young girl dealing with unimaginable circumstances at home. I had seen this show a couple years ago and immediately connected to her and dreamed of one day getting to play her. I’m so grateful to our director Melgar and the rest of the cast and crew for making this show so special for me.

Benaroya: My role is William Barfee, who is the archetype of a goofy nerd. He is obnoxious and competitive, but over the course of the musical, he develops into a kind and empathetic friend. I relate to his dorkiness and desire to prove himself, but above all, Barfee reminds me that human relationships can teach me just as much or more than books and academic material.

Gerstel: William Barfee is a pretentious, precocious prepubescent who knows he is smart and isn’t afraid to tell that to his peers, but does not believe in himself. I love his arc throughout the show since most nerdy characters in media lack depth, but writers William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin allow audiences to both laugh at and care for him.

When you hit the stage, what’s going through your mind? What’s the key to delivering a solid performance? What do you hope to achieve each time out?

Atkinson: The key for me is staying in character the entire time I’m onstage, even sometimes when I’m offstage. Anytime I would talk to my castmates on stage, it would always be through the lens of Olive and the spelling bee. I sing a dramatic and touching song towards the end of the show that reveals more truth to my character. My goal each night was to give a contrast to this truth before the song so that it becomes that much more powerful.

Benaroya: I was constantly nervous that my mind would go completely blank as soon as I hit the stage, and that I would forget all my lines. Luckily, that never happened, and as long as I stayed present in the moment and got inside the mind of Barfee, I could deliver quite a successful and fun performance. I think that the key to a solid performance is remembering that you are only going to be performing for the present audience one time.

Gerstel: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is unique for many reasons, one of which is that many of the actors are onstage for almost the entire show. When I first enter at the start of the show, I always give my fellow actors high fives and then take a moment to ground myself in the character. Since there’s audience participation, it’s a bit of a balancing act of being present as an actor and staying in character, but that’s a lot of the fun of it.