When you’re an actor in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the charming musical by William Finn about a group of children stressing their way through a high-stakes spelling bee, there’s one thing you don’t have to worry about:
The show is scripted, of course, so even though a bunch of very tough words – we might even say a plethora, if we’re going for the 50-cent variety – are sprinkled throughout the show, the actors already have gotten a chance to memorize them.
Which is why we decided to turn the tables in the preview story for the StageWorks Fresno production, which opens Friday, Sept. 2.
How about a real spelling bee for the cast of “Spelling Bee”?
I get the go-ahead from director Joel Abels and march into a rehearsal last week with a list of words. The ones for the final round are so difficult that even a champion speller might have palpitations. The Bee’s Silvia Flores is on hand for a fun video capturing the proceedings.
In the show, six of the cast members – all adults – play the child spellers. In our Fresno Bee bee, we subject the other three actors playing the adult roles to the same spelling rigors. All nine compete as themselves, not as characters, in a battle until the last person is standing.
The scene: The nine cast members take their places, with nine chairs standing in for the bleachers that are a prominent feature of the “Spelling Bee” set. (The cast hasn’t yet moved into the Bonner Auditorium at the Fresno Art Museum.) I sit in the moderator’s chair at a wooden table with the infamous bell in front of me. For a speller, to hear the ding of the bell is to wince in failure, because it means a misspelled word and elimination from the bee. (And there’s no comfort counselor on hand, as in the show, to offer consolation and a juice box.)
The mood: Ebullience (try spelling that one without looking it up) mixed with a slight but tangible whiff of dread. “This is a nightmare,” says Daniel Rodriguez, whose character, Chip Tolentino – the defending champion in the show – would likely be brimming with self-confidence in a similar situation. He takes the stage and with a great dramatic flourish, or perhaps just a bit of luck, spells rhythmic.
The words: They’re pretty easy for this first round. Intermission, spaghetti, emergency. Just as in the show, I offer a definition and the word used in a sentence. (“George drank too much at the cast party, passed out and hit his head on the Danny Award, which was an emergency.”)
The techniques: Writing out the letters of a word on one’s arm is popular. “T, E, M, P …” begins Erik Olson, who plays the show’s youngest speller, Leaf Coneybear. He gets temperature correct. (Word used in a sentence: “The leading lady had a temperature but went on anyway; unfortunately, she had the plague and infected the rest of the cast.”)
The words: They get harder. Taylor Abels, who plays the adorable Olive Ostrovsky, gets a difficult one: abrogate. (“The house manager desperately wanted to abrogate the use of cellphones.”) She’s first out by guessing an “i” instead of an “o.” Someone in the cast sings a line of “Goodbye,” the song used in the show to usher out an eliminated contestant.
Extra letter: Nick Haas, who as Vice Principal Douglas Panch in the show is one of the “adults” not involved in the competition, buckles under the pressure with flagitiously. (Definition: “viciously or wickedly.” Used in a sentence: “The understudy for Elphaba flagitiously put Ex-Lax in the brownies and brought them to her.”) He adds an ‘h” and hears the dreaded ding.
Dropping like flies: Jardiniere trips up Maria Monreal, who plays Marcy Park, the show’s mysterious wunderkind speller. Woebegone sends Rodriguez packing. Quandary “(the actor was in a quandary whether to try out for StageWorks or GCP”) is the downfall of Amalie Larsen, who plays the nostalgic Rona Lisa Peretti, the show’s spelling bee moderator, who finds herself on the other side of the ding. Phlegmatic eliminates Miguel Gastelum, who plays William Barfee, the kid in the show who spells out his letters with a “magic foot.” William Bishop, as Mitch Mahoney, the show’s “comfort counselor,” is done in by quagmire (“In a few months, Mayor Swearengin will say, “I’m outta this quagmire.”)
Left standing: Larson gets libidinous correct. And Christy Hathaway, as the precocious Logainne Schwartzandgrubierre, moves on with annihilation.
Duel to the death: Larson and Hathaway trade words, including tenebrific (definition: “gloomy.” Used in a sentence: “The theater critic was in a tenebrific mood as he trudged into yet another production of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ ”)
Missed word: Larson draws the hardest word in the bunch: autochthonous (“aboriginal.”) It’s his downfall.
Final word: To win the bee, Hathaway must spell the final word correctly. She gets vicissitude.
Dramatic flair: Hathaway plays the moment for all it’s worth, drawing out the word letter by letter, then finishing with “itude” in a fast flourish. “That is correct,” I say. We have a champion.
Moment of glory: “Superstar!” Hathaway says, swinging her character’s trademark twin braids in triumph. She hoists the trophy above her head. You’ll have to see the show to find out if she’s the real winner, but for this moment, at least, the Hathaway/Schwartzandgrubierre households are rejoicing.
Final comment: “That was the most terrifying thing ever,” Rodriguez says.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
- Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2. Runs through Sept. 18.
- Fresno Art Museum Bonner Auditorium, 2233 N. First St.
- www.stageworksfresno.com, 559-289-6622
- $25, $22 students and seniors
Win tickets and a guest spelling spot
The Bee is giving away two four-packs of tickets to any of the opening weekend performances (7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday). If you’re a winner, you’ll receive four tickets for any performance plus one guaranteed spot as one of the four audience guest spellers who get to be in each show. To enter, add a comment to the “Spelling Bee” giveaway post by 11 a.m. Friday, Sept. 2, answering this question: What word do you constantly misspell (or have to look up) in your daily life? You’ll find the contest rules online.