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Magnolia Arts to perform 'Putnam County Spelling Bee'


James Giles rehearses as William Barfee in "Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Magnolia Arts Center on June 13, 2019.


Kim Grizzard

Friday, June 14, 2019

In many ways, theater is like a spelling bee. Those preparing to take the stage spend weeks practicing and memorizing, hoping they won't get tripped up by a word when they get their moment in the spotlight.

Perhaps nowhere is this parallel more evident than in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which opens Thursday at Magnolia Arts Center. The musical comedy, based on a book by Rachel Sheinkin with music and lyrics by William Finn, is the story of a half a dozen quirky adolescents (played by adults) who compete in a fictitious spelling bee.

While the actors must learn to spell words like capybara (the world's largest rodent) and chimerical (imaginary), the play is not a spelling competition set to music.

“These kids are competitive, but the play is not about the spelling,” Director Mitch Butts said. “Each kid has a unique and different situation that he or she has to deal with.

“Each of these kids has an unusual background,” he said. “... It's not always happy.”

For Marcy Park, played by D.H. Conley High School student Ella Coats (from Magnolia's “Elf Jr.”), it's the constant pressure for perfection, best illustrated by her solo “I Speak Six Languages.” The youngest speller, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, played by ECU student Sarah March (“Hairspray”), speaks with a lisp and finds it almost impossible to please her two dads. William Barfee, played by James Giles, spells words with his foot and is is hyper-sensitive to allergens and to having his name mispronounced.

“There's some back story for each character that tells you why they have the quirks that they have and why they act the way that they do,” said David Bisese, who portrays defending spelling bee champ Chip Tolentino. An overconfident Boy Scout, Chip expects a repeat of last year's bee but has to take a seat after preteen hormones get the best of him.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is the first show for Bisese since high school. Also making their Magnolia Arts Center debut are South Central High School student Shelby Starr, who plays speller Olive Ofstrovsky, and ECU theater students Alyssa Davis (as moderator Rona Lisa Perritti) and Dustin Nguyen, (as speller Leaf Coneybear).

“He's an eccentric little boy who is a bit misunderstood by his family,” Nguyen said of his character. “Everybody thinks he's kind of dumb, but he's actually quite smart and he surprises everyone.”

But the biggest surprise of the show is not how Leaf, who won third-place in his local bee, manages to stay in the competition. It's the way audience members are invited to the stage to compete alongside the six spellers in the cast.

That's when musical theater meets improvisational comedy, a merger that should spell F-U-N.

“We have four audience members each night that come up and they're spellers,” Butts said. “Of course, they don't know what they're going to get. They don't know what's going to be said about them.”

Davis, along with Anthony Holsten, who plays announcer Doug Panch, get to wing it.

“The announcer is improv, whatever comes off the top of his head,” Butts said. “The emcee is sort of improv. When the emcee announces Joan Smith, Joan Smith comes up; she has no idea what word is coming. But as she comes up the emcee will give a little bit about her background, whether it's Joan Smith gets lost in her own backyard or Joan Smith has a tattoo shaped like the Philippines.”

Davis said improvisation is a necessary skill for any actor, whether or not it's called for in the script.

“I've had to improv in a show before when things go wrong,” she said. “Things happen. Wigs fall off.”

She expects that age jokes will be natural, since spellers are cast as adolescents and any age audience member could be called on to join the competition.

“It's definitely a little bit difficult, especially to know where to toe the line with the comedy and not push it too far,” she said.

Starr said the added element of uncertainty should keep cast members and the audience on their toes.

“I've never been in a show where audience participation is a part of the show, and I think it really pushes the actors,” she said. “But it also kind of thrusts the audience volunteers into the position of the actual spellers. In a normal spelling bee, you don't know what words you're going to get. You don't know how everything's going to go, so they're kind of forced to be in that situation.”

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