By George Basler
Spelling bees, whether you consider them competitions or quaint rituals, are a tradition as old as American education itself. Generations of kids have participated in them from school contests to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
Even in an age of spell-check and other electronic tools, they haven’t gone the way of the dodo bird or 8-track tapes.
What happens at one of those “bees” is the basis for the musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in which six brainy, but awkward, middle-school students compete for top prize under the watchful eyes of three quirky judges, including an ex-convict performing his community service.
The show is “very fun and very silly,” said Anna Rizzotti, 26, who is directing the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players’ production of the musical, which opens Friday (June 2) for a three-weekend run in Owego.
But it also touches on “very real human problems” Rizzotti added, such as adolescent angst, adolescent insecurity and feeling pressure to be the best. The six contestants are “larger than life” while also being characters with real humanity, who are at an age “when everything seems so much more important than it is,” she said.
The show, which opened on Broadway in 2005, was a major hit, running 1,136 performances and winning two Tony Awards, including Best Book for a Musical. William Finn composed the music and lyrics while playwright Rachel Sheinkin wrote the book, which was conceived by Rebecca Feldman with additional material by Jay Reiss. Since its original production, the musical has spawned productions across the United States and other countries.
Basicallly, it’s “just a fun, light-hearted show with a good message” of perseverance and acceptance, said Douglas Harrington, who is producing the Ti-Ahwaga production.
An unusual feature of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is that audience participation is a key element. At each performance, four adult volunteers are invited to the stage to compete in the bee with the six young characters. While the actors’ lines are scripted, the audience members have no idea what words they will be called on to spell. “This adds to the laughter and fun experience,” Rizzotti said.
The six adolescent characters all have distinct personality traits. One is an over-achiever. One is a worrywart. Another is a latch key kid. Yet another suffers from peanut allergies. One pictures himself as “the cool kid.” Another is a homeschooler with former hippies as parents.
“I love it (the show) because it allows you to tap into your childhood brain” with its joys, adventures and curiosity, said Alondra Hughes, 28, who is playing the politically active Logaine Schwartzangrubenierre (a perfect name for a spelling bee). She described her character, who has two overbearing gay fathers, as “a ball of stress,” who is “working her tail off to do her darndest.”
Amanda Blake, 28, who is playing the overachieving Marcy Park, was attracted to the musical became she enjoys performing Finn’s music. “It’s a sample platter of musical genres,” including ballads, up-tempo numbers and gospel, she said. She described her character as so overachieving that she finds it hard to socialize with her peers.
Music director Chris VanDerwerker, 26, will be conducting a five-person live orchestra. He thinks part of the appeal of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is that everyone is familiar with spelling bees.
Rizzotti’s concept in directing the show is to have realistic scenes, which take place in the school’s auditorium, alternate with more surreal scenes that take place in the youngsters’ imaginations and memories. To re-enforce the concept, she’s designed a set with drawings and letters on the walls of the stage and theater.
The show is suitable for general audiences and teenage children. Rizzotti thinks the musical especially resonates with high school-age students who “are trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be.”
Corrine O’Leary is technical director of the production, Emily Canavan is the stage manager and Eleri Rodriques heads crafting.
One can’t help wondering: Has anybody in the production been in a spelling bee?
Rizzotti said she competed in one in elementary school. She made it into the top 10 of contests before being eliminated because she misspelled the plant chrysanthemum.
“I can’t spell it to this day,” she said.
IF YOU GO: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be performed weekends June 2-18 at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $30 for ages 18-64, $25 for ages 65 and older, $20 for ages 11-17 and $15 for ages 10 and under. They can be purchased at www.tiahwaga.com or by calling the box office at 607-687-2130.