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STAGED HUMOR: Panache’s latest musical harkens back to middle school

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Emilyl Graham, Anthony Reynolds and Jordan Hathaway play contestants in Panache’s “25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee,” opening Thursday evening. Photos by director James Bowling


Middle school is so awkward. Puberty keeps young hormones out of whack. Paired with a hefty dose of immaturity and yearning to fit in, well, it’s all the more challenging. The pressure rises more if you’re a bee—as evidenced by “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical comedy conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with additional material by Jay Reiss, and music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin.

The 2005 multi-award-winning show will open September 26 at the Hannah Block USO/Community Arts Center from Panache Theatrical Productions. Managing director Holli Saperstein chose the show for its wit and humor. “I loved the music, the simple set and the concept,” she adds. “And I really enjoy the audience participation angle—so much fun.”

Volunteer audience members will be chosen to pop onstage with the contestants. Saperstein promises the words will be a breeze; “perspicacious” or “loquacious” will be reserved only for the fittest of competitors.  “I promise, it is fun—and you get a juice box at the end!” she quips.

Returning to the competition is Leaf Coneybear (Anthony Reynolds), second runnerup in the district who happens to get into the competition on a lark (“I’m Not That Smart”). Apparently, he can only spell while deep in a trance. Volunteer audience members play the homeschooler’s family, which keeps Reynolds on stage most of the show. “Leaf is a playful comic relief,” Reynolds explains. “He creates a welcoming and ecstatic atmosphere.”

Reynolds and his cast take on the mannerisms and voices of sixth graders. That includes all their oddball quirks, dietary problems and first crushes. Enter William “Magic Foot” Barfee, played by Jordan Hathaway. Having been elmininated previously due to an allergic reaction to peanuts, Barfee returns for vindication with the eye on the prize, not settling for runnerup again.

“I love the spectacle that is ‘Magic Foot,'” Hathaway says. “He watches each contestant closely as they spell each word. He really loves to hear the bell when others spell incorrectly.”

He also has a crush on Olive, the youngest newcomer to the bee. One of Hathaway’s favorite scenes is when they rearrange letters to create new words. “It’s like academic preteen flirting and so cute!” he says. Still, for all the persistence and tenacity of Barfee, his over-the-top ‘tude has proven an adjustment for Hathaway’s normal, kind demeanor.

“Barfée is a bully and rude to the other spellers,” he says, “but only because he’s been bullied by others himself. He is a dynamic character that opens up a bit about his health issues and stepmom woes as the show progresses.”

While the show is a funny romp, it’s not without depth. Through flashback scenes during each contestant’s word, the audience learns the backstory. “Each kid has a chance to explore their home life and character through song,” Saperstein says. “Some are hilarious, some very touching.”

Take Marcy Park, for instance. Marcy is little miss perfection. She is naturally gifted at many things, including being proficient in six launguages, playing multiple instruments, and only needing three hours of sleep a night. According to actor Caitlin Wolfe, Marcy also hates being so perfect. “I feel like she is the dream everyone aspires to,” Wolfe says of her character’s brilliancy. “I also like how she is so honest and confident in her abilities.”

Having placed in the top 10 at the national level, Marcy is one to beat. But she’s also exhausted by the pressure of being so great at everything. “As she starts to have fun in the show, I have to choose the right moments and how big the reaction to that moment for her will be, in order to portray a loosening on that perfect persona,” Wolfe explains.

Another passionate student is Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre (with a name like that, it’s no wonder she’s a proficient speller). Only her focus is on social justice. Her political awareness and grasp on current events impresses.

“I also think she’s the wisest,” Emily Graham explains of Logan. “Her two dads are very different; one is cutting and critical.”

Hathaway breaks from his role as William Barfee to play the mean dad in the show. “At times it can be challenging to switch from multifaceted Barfée into the nasty father figure,
Hathaway says. “I have learned that spelling is not easy and little tricks really do help when spelling in the bee.”

Alongside the kids carrying a great deal of the show’s humor, two adults overseeing the annual contest, Vice Principal Paunch (Michael Laureicella) and moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Jamie Nelson), also add to the laughter. Rona demonstrates a passion for organizing the event and helping the kids succeed.

“She keeps the rules, maintains its dignity, and inspires passion for the audience,” Nelson explains. “Without Rona, ADHD and/or ambivalence would consume every other person, eventually, and the bee would falter.”

Lauricella, as the vice principal dishes out the words and definitions to the characters, as they struggle to spell them. “He also is a stickler for rules!” Lauricella says. He is the only cast member who doesn’t have a singing role. “I hum along in my head,” Lauricella tells. “I’ve learned to be a really good listener.”

Amanda Hunter on piano leads the band, which includes perucssionist Vince Stout, Toree McLamb on reeds, Stephen Pfeiffer on cello, and Linda Carlisle Markas on synthesizer. The score by William Finn (“Little Miss Sunshine”) has been a welcome project.

“The genres range from ragtime, to traditional Indian music, to gospel,” Hunter says. “This score is so rhythmically challenging. That’s hands-down the hardest component.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Sept. 26-29 and Oct. 3-6, 7:30 p.m. or 3 p.m. Sundays
Hannah Block USO/Community Arts Center, 120 S. Second St.
Tickets: $26-$28

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