“My unfortunate erection / Is destroying my perfection,” cries Chip Tolentino, played by LSA freshman Dave Caldwell, after his dream of becoming Putnam County’s preeminent speller is foiled by adolescence. It happens to the best of us. Luckily, the University will be able to relive those traumatizing middle school years this weekend at the Power Center.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Today and tomorrow at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
MUSKET will be performing “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a one-act show about six quirky child prodigies competing in a high-stakes spelling bee while attempting to navigate the single most harrowing experience known to mankind: puberty.
“These roughly nine to 13 year olds are taking part in the Putnam spelling bee,” director and Music, Theatre and Dance senior Rebecca Spooner said. “It’s these six eclectic and eccentric kids, each have their own little quirks and stories and backgrounds. They’re the misfits, they’re the outcasts, they’re the oddballs and the scapegoats, but they’re all very lovable.”
The beloved comedy features a kooky cast of characters brought together by their insatiable need to win the county spelling bee. The Broadway musical has roots connecting it back to the University, which is just one of the reasons MUSKET picked the musical.
“The original Broadway show has a couple of Michigan alums in it and so we were excited to bring it back to the University,” producer and MT&D junior Kathryn Pamula said.
“Spelling Bee” has a small cast of just nine members, with many of the actors doubling up on roles. The fast-paced show, which features plenty of improv with characters spontaneously ad-libbing quick one-liners, is more light-hearted than past MUSKET fare.
“This is the first show that MUSKET has done since I’ve got here that no one dies,” Pamula said. “They’ve been fun at times but someone always dies. So doing a happy show with a small cast has given the experience of a sense of family and sense of community.”
The characters in the show range from brilliant child geniuses like William Barfée, who spells out words by outlining the letters with his “magic foot,” to the zany Leaf Coneybear, who has to go into a trance before spelling out his word. Even though the characters let their freak flags fly, they’re easily relatable for University students who undoubtedly cringe when confronted with frizzy-haired “photo memories” on Facebook.
“The characters are all struggling with growing up,” Caldwell said. “My character is trying to maintain this perfect child star image. He gets very caught up in his genitals, which are changing and becoming erect all the time.”
Caldwell added that getting into character required him to remember what it was like being at that awkward age.
“I’m really focusing on being true to what a child-slash-tween goes through,” he said.
“Spelling Bee” may be peppered with raunchy and crowd-pleasing musical numbers, but cast members and crew seem to agree that the focal point of the show is the characters themselves.
“The jokes are great, but it’s really about the characters, and as the director I’ve really had the opportunity to dig into these characters,” Spooner said.
MT&D and LSA junior Ali Gordon, who plays the shy, dictionary-loving Olive Ostrovsky, knows students will see themselves in the show.
“The musical has a surprising amount of heart. It’s a show about growing up; it’s about kids realizing that they’re on the verge of adulthood,” she said.
Every aspect of the contestants’ personalities has been considered and toyed with — from each character’s unique movements, to the way they sing or talk, to the way the cast members vibe off each other on stage. It’s obvious the final product required an intense amount of collaboration between the cast and the production team.
“Everybody is really sharing the weight the entire time, everybody feels responsible for everybody on stage … everyone has their eyes on the periphery so they can help everyone else get through the show,” Gordon said.
“Spelling Bee” doesn’t have an intermission and is only 90 minutes long, so the cast members have to be on their toes and in character the whole time. The audience is treated to an immersive experience, which will have viewers breathlessly rooting for all the freaks and geeks on stage. But Gordon does have one worry.
“My only concern now is that I want to hydrate a lot before the show, but I have terrible bladder control, so I’m afraid I’ll have to run out of the theater. It is literally my greatest fear,” she said.
Despite the lack of bathroom breaks, the show has another aspect that sets it apart from most musicals: It’s interactive. The final cast list for “Spelling Bee” has yet to be determined, as a couple of audience members will be (voluntarily) picked to join the rest of the offbeat characters on stage during each show to compete in the bee.
“The show never gets stagnant, because it changes every night depending on who’s competing,” Gordon said. “And we encourage good spellers because it makes it more exciting.”
Nevertheless, the cast will guide ambitious audience members through the show. And, added Spooner, “every speller gets a juice box and a hug.”
Spooner has one final piece of advice before coming to the show.
“Brush up on your spelling skills,” she joked.