Not your average spelling bee
LAKE PLACID – How do you make an entire musical out of a spelling bee?
It sounds far-fetched, but Lake Placid High School is doing just that when it puts on a production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” this weekend.
The show is relatively new, running on Broadway from 2005 to 2008. Director Kim Weems said she wanted to mount a production of it because it’s a great script.
“I loved the characters, because I think we have all been these characters at one time or another,” Weems said. “I think it’s very, very clever; it’s very different.”
The show follows six main characters as they compete in a spelling bee, with musical numbers about the rules of the game, why they got into spelling, and the pressures of competition. Throughout the show, they spell words ranging from “cat” to “Weltanschauung.”
Through flashbacks, the audience learns about the backgrounds of each of the main characters, like Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, the bee’s youngest competitor who has two overbearing gay dads; Chip Tolentino, a Boy Scout who won last year’s bee but has found puberty hormones getting in the way of his spelling performance this year; and Leaf Coneybear, who got into the competition after coming in third place in his local spelling bee but the first- and second-place winners were busy with a bat mitzvah on the day of the county bee.
Weems said that high schools tend to avoid the show because it’s musically difficult, but she had faith in her students to be able to pull it off. She was looking to challenge her students.
“I’m always looking for something that stretches us, and I thought for us to do a show where the sets and the costumes are not elaborate but students just have to act and sing very well would be challenging and it would stretch them and build some skills,” Weems said. “And they have done this.”
A unique aspect of the show is the audience participation element. Several members of the audience are invited to compete in the spelling bee at the beginning of the show, and they stay on stage until they are eliminated.
The main cast members sing a goodbye ditty as each of the audience spellers are eliminated, and a character who acts as “comfort counselor” as court-ordered community service gives the eliminated speller a hug and a juice box as he or she exits.
The show has a small cast – it can be done with 10 actors if all the roles are doubled – so Weems came up with an idea for giving more actors a chance to participate. She decided to give the spacey character Leaf a huge, folk-singing family to perform a set during the “intermission,” actually right before the real intermission.
The clan of tie dye-clad girls and one guitar-stroking brother sing a cappella versions of “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and, of course, “Kumbaya,” and they use props like flower petals to accentuate the lyrics.
The students in the production have a great time with it and are looking forward to having an audience.
Senior Lucky Cerruti said he’s happy with ending his high school acting career on this note. He plays William Barfee, a quirky dork with mucus issues who says “I know” every time he’s told he spelled a word correctly.
“He’s not the most handsome or clean kid, but he’s a good speller and he’s focused and he’s got a big heart,” Cerruti said. “It’s fun to play.”
Cerruti said Weems didn’t want him to imitate actor Dan Fogler’s Tony-award-winning performance from the Broadway production. Fogler’s Barfee was gruff, strong and not very likable, so Cerruti set out to make the character someone the audience would root for.
“I kind of wanted him to be really awkward to watch, but when he has to be, like, nice, he’s very nice, and the audience kind of sympathizes for him a little bit,” Cerruti said.
Other than the pre-intermission performance by the Coneybears, the characters are on stage for pretty much the entire show. That’s been one of the biggest challenges of this musical, Cerruti said, “because you never know who’s watching.”
He said he loves the show, and he thinks it will be a big hit once it has an audience.
“The show’s super crazy and so much fun and hysterical. I think everyone’s going to really like it,” Cerruti said. “And no one really knows about it, which is really cool.”
Sophomore Ally Wallace plays Olive Ostrovsky, whose mother is on a spiritual quest in India and her father works too much, so she grew up reading the dictionary. She belts out her frustrations to her mother in “The I Love You Song.”
Wallace said one of her biggest challenges has been not cracking up onstage as the other characters say and do crazy things.
“I think it’s really funny,” Wallace said. “It’s probably one of my favorite shows I’ve ever been in, because it’s just so crazy and stupid sometimes.”
The musical opens tonight at 7 p.m. at the high school auditorium, with additional shows at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.