His Broadway tour debut spells out lots of fun

June 7, 2009 

A is for “accommodate.”

That’s the word I imagine having to spell as I look into my bathroom mirror. I practice saying the letters slowly and clearly: a-c-c-o-m-m-o-d-a-t-e. Yes! The audience murmurs its approval. I am a double-letter king. Bring ’em on, baby.

The voice in my head says, “That is correct!” I fantasize about being the only audience speller in the history of the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” to remain on stage for the entire show, even though the musical is structured in such a way that those four spellers have to be eliminated first. The impact will be tsunamilike in the history of the show: big news articles, ticked-off-stage manager, feature interview on Broadway.com. Maybe I’ll make the cover of Spelling Bee Monthly. B is for “Babcock.”

As in Taylor Babcock, recent star of the Good Company Players production of “Footloose.” He’s one of my fellow spellers. The others are Jennifer Casey and Emily Ballard.

We’re herded into a small room off the lobby. The two understudies for the show give us an orientation. If we don’t remember anything else, they say, don’t forget to ask for a definition of the word and for it to be used in a sentence when we get called to the microphone. Otherwise, let the cast members on stage guide us through the movements. And most important: Just be ourselves. Don’t act. The understudy says to Babcock: “You’re an actor. Especially you.”

We enter the Saroyan, and the production starts. After the cast sings the first number, the “missing” spelling-bee contestants — that’s the four of us — are called to the stage, which represents a school gymnasium. We’re given numbers to wear around our necks and are guided to our seats on the bleachers.

U is for “umbilical cord.”

That’s how closely it feels like we’re attached to the six cast members who play the “kids” in the show — they’re all adults, which makes it more funny — who not only have to create convincing characters and belt out their songs but also keep us nonprofessionals from screwing up the show. What unfolds is almost like being in a cocoon. (Hey, I can spell that, too.)

The bright lights transform the audience into a hazy blur. I can hear the audience laugh, but it’s a distant roar, like the sound of the sea. My world is suddenly a warm, contained space in which I surrender control. I sit on the top row of the bleacher between the actors playing two of the boys in the show, and at times they’ll whisper directions to me: Stand up here. Stay seated. At one point each of them locks one of my arms and thrusts me from side to side.

After the first contestant is knocked out — Casey is asked to spell “muntjac,” an East Asian deer — I find myself on the middle of the stage during a song holding hands in a circle with Babcock and Ballard while jumping up and down.

L is for “laugh.”

That’s what the audience does when each of us is called up to spell a word. The moderator has a little quip to say about each contestant. Ballard is described as the winner of her school’s Jennifer Connelly lookalike contest. (She correctly spells “atheist.”) When Babcock ran for student body president, we learn, he coined the slogan “When you think of White Guy — think of me!” (He correctly spells “jihad.”) For me, the moderator declares: “At age 12, he’s the youngest reporter for The Fresno Bee.”

I is for “incredulous.”

That’s how everyone in the audience feels when I finally get called up to spell my first word. “Spell ‘cow,’ ” the moderator says. It’s obviously meant for a big laugh.

I have to ask the question, because it’s been drilled into my head. “Can I have a definition?” He looks at me like I’m an idiot. After I sit back down on the bleachers, the cast sings a song called “Pandemonium” about how life is random and unfair. It’s my favorite song in the show. Sometimes you get asked to spell “cow.” Sometimes you get “glaucescent.” The cast members spin the bleachers around. It’s like being on the tea-cup ride at Disneyland.

A is for “abulia.”

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Just as I’m feeling really comfortable up there on stage, I get called up to spell again. (By this time, just Ballard and I are left, Babcock having been eliminated on the word “zuuzuu.”) My word is “abulia.” It’s a psychiatric term meaning a symptom of mental disorder involving a loss of volition.

I immediately think of Ebola. So I take a chance: “e-b-u-l-i-a.”

So close. But wrong. Before I leave the stage, I get three big hugs from the “comfort counselor.” And I’m handed my runner-up prize: a juice box with a little plastic straw. The last audience member standing, Ballard, gets booted off soon afterward, but not before completely winning over the crowd. (I’m not going to reveal the way in which the show gets the audience to root for that last contestant, but when you’ve seen the show a couple of times, you realize how immensely clever it is.) And this happy, heartfelt, beautifully sung show unfolds to its touching conclusion.

As I walk to my seat, juice box in hand, I contemplate my Broadway-touring-company debut. What a blast. I’ll never forget the view from the stage, sitting directly behind a singer belting a solo as her silhouette looms in the haze of the lights. I’ll never forget dancing in front of 1,500 people and not making them cringe. And I’ll never forget how to spell “abulia.”

The columnist can be reached at dmunro@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6373. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com/author/donald_munro, where he has posted a photo of his beloved new juice box.

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