By Taryn Balchunas (Assistant Grant Writer/Contributor)
For me, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is one of those shows that makes my mouth hurt from smiling so much. I first saw the production on Broadway as a freshman in high school when our acting teacher and current Artistic Director at the Playhouse, Sean Harris, took the drama department to see the show. He was invited to be a guest speller, we had the privilege of attending a session with the production’s understudy for Marcy Park, as well as the privilege of seeing Jesse Tyler Ferguson play Leaf Coneybear. That was the first show I saw on Broadway and it was a magical experience.
Since, I’ve never forgotten Spelling Bee. I didn’t hesitate to see my friend perform in Clark University’s production of the show, and I revisit the music when it strikes my fancy. I was thrilled to hear when the Playhouse announced they would put on this production to close out our fifth season. I knew it was going to be a fabulous run and wanted to be a part of my favorite musical somehow.
On opening night, I was signed up to be a guest speller. Perhaps wearing overalls was an advantage in getting chosen. I digress. Being a guest speller is a wonderful way of having the opportunity to participate in Spelling Bee. I had to answer a few questions before I was selected, a short bio that the moderators could use to poke fun at the guest spellers as they’re called to the mic. Those selected were given a list of reminders to help prepare us for our participation onstage. We were able to sit in our audience seats until the guidance counselor called us for a conference at the beginning of the show, reminding us of the rules and handing us number tags to wear around our necks to match the spellers in the cast. Then we were ushered onstage, where the spellers directed us where to sit on the bleachers. I sat next to Marcy Park, who was convincingly portrayed as intense and intimidating by Maya Naff. I hummed instead of sang along to “The Spelling Rules,” one of the moments where it was hard to not break into one of the songbook’s infectious tunes. Guest spellers were encouraged to be ourselves and not overact or be a ham, anyway.
The first word that I was selected to spell was “apoop.” As I was directed to, I asked for the definition and for Vice Principal Panch to use it in a sentence. What tricked me was the sentence, “Guido the seasick Italian sailor said, “Excuse me boys, but I have to go apoop.” The stereotypical Italian accent and Panch’s initial delivery of the word prompted me to spell the word as “poop.” Panch repeated the word for me after I finished spelling and allowed me to spell it again, probably to save me from the humiliation of getting out of the competition so early. The second word that I had to spell was “crapaud.” Since I was familiar with Spelling Bee’s adult content, I was prepared for some adult humor from the word selections. However, being unfamiliar with the word, I heard it as “craphole” and spelled it as such. When I was mulling over how to spell the word, I tried telepathically communicating with Panch to see if he really wanted me to utter the word “craphole” out loud. And no, telepathically pleading with an actor does not work. Panch looked at me stoically and patiently before I gave my final answer. Being a guest speller is nerveracking, even with the forewarning. I was cut from the competition because of my dirty mind.
While onstage for the majority of the first act, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience. I jumped from my seat when Mitch Mahoney turned to the spellers and pounded his chest in a threatening way. “Pandemonium” was literally pandemonium when the spellers shuffled the guest spellers along the stage, even rolling us on the bleachers like an amusement park ride. I wasn’t too disappointed when I was disqualified and received a certificate and Hi-C (not apple juice) juice box, a sugary “juice” my mother refused to purchase when I was a kid. Viewing the rest of the show from my stage left seat of the three-quarter thrust was a treat in itself.
I’ve always regarded being a live theater actor as one of the toughest professions, due to the consecutive performances and repetitiveness their job requires. Luckily, Spelling Bee has the advantage of allotted room for improv, allowing for something different at every performance. I decided to see this show at the Playhouse a second time near the end of its run, in order to watch it from my audience seat in full as well as see the progress it has made since opening night. Since we extended the show’s run, the cast has been able to work on their portrayals at every performance, improving more and more. And when I saw it a second time, I was not surprised to see an excellent and compelling performance. When I saw the determined and focused look in Maya Naff’s eyes, I knew she has delivered as Marcy Park every performance. When I heard Natalie Sannes hit that very high note during “The I Love You Song,” I knew she can reach it every time without difficulty. And when I witnessed Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre get disqualified, I knew Hillary Ekwall’s tears were real. The main differences I noticed only were the order of the words chosen for each guest speller, the time at which the guest spellers took a photo with the cast, and the type of relationship between Rona Lisa Peretti and Vice Principal Douglas Panch. Though, the reveal in Peretti and Panch’s epilogues about Panch’s restraining order being undetectable throughout the show might be the fault of the playwrights and not the actors.
The great thing about Spelling Bee is that even in this fictitious world, the characters come to life. Steven Mooney did a wonderful job at convincing me to like William Barfee, although some would argue that Barfee isn’t supposed to be a likable character. I was also happy to see Steven’s hair grow back to resemble Barfee’s curly hair. Costume designer Collette C. Benoit did a terrific job with the costumes, bringing out each character’s specific quirks from Olive’s silk top to Logainne’s star-spangled canvas shoes. The characters were zany, heartfelt, and the actors’ love for them was definitely apparent. I could see why they would want to sign on to play teenagers for a little over a month. Spelling Bee creates a world that feels human. We laugh, we cry. Even as an audience member, it’s a world that’s hard to leave.
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