Let me spell it out for you: H-U-R-R-Y over to the Newport Theater Arts Center where the Tony Award-winning musical “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is playing until June 26.
This refreshingly fun one-act musical comedy is about six painfully pubescent middle schoolers competing in a spelling bee.
On the surface, the six kids just seem like a bunch of nerdy misfits. And, well, they are. But beneath the exterior of the overachiever who speaks six languages, the homeschooler who makes his own clothes, or the former president of the Gay Alliance of her elementary school, we get a glimpse of the complexities of their emotions through musical numbers such as “I’m Not That Smart” and “The I Love You Song.”
“Spelling Bee” began as an improvisational skit created by Rebecca Feldman in New York. The final incarnation, with a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn, ended up on Broadway and was nominated for six Tonys, winning two. The show incorporates its improv roots by calling a few members of the audience to be contestants in the spelling bee.
The cast of nine boasts a cohesive chemistry – a challenge when six of the nine are self-absorbed adolescents competing against each other. But that is part of what works so well with this cast –their ability to tap into their inner middle schooler.
The actors give immense praise to director Kari Hayter’s ability to draw out the best in them, individually and as a group. Seth Salsbury, who plays Leaf Coneybear, said Hayter “finds things in the script that no one else even thinks about”
Erin McNally (Rona) adds, “She started our first rehearsal reminding us that the best part of this show is it’s heart. So, if we play each moment with honesty, the laughs will undoubtedly come.”
The laughs certainly came – one on top of another, like a PG-13 Carol Burnett skit.
The co-hosts of the spelling bee, small-town bubbly realtor Rona (Erin McNally) and Vice Principal Panch (Jason Oles) keep the competition moving. Much of the hilarity of the play comes from the absurd words, definitions and sentence usage doled out to each contestant by Panch, such as “phylactery” (a leather box inscribed with Scripture worn by Jewish men during prayer). When asked for it in a sentence, Panch “reads” from the index card he is holding, “Billy, put down that phylactery, we’re Episcopalian.”
McNally, who had the strongest signing voice of the talented cast, played Rona with a believable exuberance. Preparing for her role, she immersed herself in real Spelling Bee videos and said watching real-life kids compete, made it easier for her to see the real-life moments in this hilarious play. McNally explained “The reason I did this was to remind myself how important a spelling bee is to the children who compete.”
McNally remembers competing in a spelling bee when she was young. “I got out on the word ‘vacuum’ which really made me mad because I knew there were two U’s in the word – but I was so nervous, I accidentally forgot to say them both. It still bugs me!”
Troy Iwata skillfully brings Chip, the uptight Boy Scout, and all of his angst to life.
Iwata, said that certain parts of his role as Chip are “definitely identifiable” with who he was in middle school.
“I was and still am a perfectionist, like Chip, I do take myself way too seriously at times and I’m also an Eagle Scout, which I’m sure Chip [who comes to the bee in his scout uniform] aspires to be.”
Like cast mate McNally, Iwata also remembers losing a spelling bee in 4th grade (on his first turn).
“I lost for spelling pigeon, ‘P-I-D-G-E-O-N,’ and for the rest of the day my mom reassured me that pigeon is one of the most difficult birds to spell.”
Seth Salsbury nailed his part as Leaf Coneybear, the loveable cape-and-helmet-clad oddball. Salsbury, who in real life was runner up in 5th grade and won his 6th grade spelling bee, believes that Coneybear “wouldn’t know to try and hide some of his quirks to fit in.” Deciding to let go entirely of his inhibitions and giving in to “awkward moments” made all the difference. Never out of character, everything from his facial expressions to body movements and lines were consistent, believable and funny.
Amy Ganser played Olive. With Olive’s challenges being much more subtle, Ganser found a way to deliver the audience a powerful punch with a velvet glove.
Iwata said it best: “We have created a show that everyone can relate to and enjoy, filled with characters that I believe are all endearing in their own quirky way.”
And I believe that at the end of the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the real winner is the audience.
For more information and tickets, call 949-631-0288 or visit www.ntaconline.com.