Bay City Players Explore the Unpredictable Mirth of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 733   By: Robert E Martin

29th September, 2011     0

The Bay City Players kick off their new Fall Season with a production of unpredictable mirth in the form of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - a one-act musical comedy conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book byRachel Sheinkin.

Centering on a fictional 'spelling bee' set in a geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley Middle School, six quirky adolescents compete in the bee, which is amusingly run by equally quirky grown-ups.

The original 2005 Broadway production earned good reviews and box-office success and was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two that year, including Best Book. But perhaps the best component of this production is an unusual aspect of the show that incorporates four real audience members, invited on stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the six young characters. Indeed, during the 2005 Tony Awards, former Presidential candidate Al Sharpton competed!

With a cast that includes Laura Asiala, David Bowden, Trevor Keyes, Amanda Glashauser, Vincent Hanchon, Maddy Lynch, Kalie Schnabel, Tommy Vassallo, and Mike Wisniewski that also range in age from 16 to 29, they collectively perform the roles of the spelling bee kids solidly and believably, which is axiomatic to the success of this production.

When thinking of Broadway musicals as a while, how would Leeds place Putnam Spelling Bee in the lexicon of American Theatre and what are some factors that he feels distinguish this production?

Spelling Bee is clearly a contemporary musical. The music carries aspects of traditional musical theatre and contemporary music, especially in rhythms. There are nods to Soul music, Show music, Pop music - one comic song even has a brief internal portion that speaks to Opera. I think it's too soon to predict where Bee will end up historically as shows go, but it is one of the hottest musicals in the United States today.”

Is it difficult to find actors capable of effectively pulling off the roles of children and how did the audition process go?

“Music Director Kunio Ouellette and I think this is one of the most talented casts we've worked with. From the very beginning they have provided character, voice, and dance at a level of excellence. We're delighted. There are no real key characters in this show. It is remarkable how well the playwrights have integrated characters and plot to keep a truly evenly balanced show.”

With interactive segments that also involve audience members into each performance, obviously the unpredictability of each performance thanks to this element also gives it a vital edge. How did Leeds approach the challenge of weaving this unknown variable into the context of the show?

“The playwrights provide an immediate 'heads-up' in the script,” he explains. “They caution us that the actors will need to improvise with the four volunteer spellers who come up from the audience each night. They provide suggestions in choosing volunteers and even go so far as to offer a line here or there to suggest how the volunteers may be incorporated into the context of the show. We are working with a core of our own volunteers for two weeks before opening. It has been amazing how this affects each performance and how we learn from our rehearsal volunteers. The 'edge' is exciting.”

Musical Director Kunio Ouellette is a teacher in the Essexville/Hampton School district and a vital part of the Bay City musical community, having acted and directed at Bay City Players, State Theatre, and Share the FUNds and is equally pleased and surprised at the speed and success with which the cast has mastered the music and especially the complexity of harmonies and rhythms. “A good deal of this music is complicated, but the cast has it down.”

“My only concern regarding Spelling Bee is that the title misleads adults into thinking this is a show performed by kids or for a kid's audience,” concludes Leeds. “Nothing is further from the truth. The humor is directed exclusively at adults and there is a ton of humor. This could almost be called a comedy with music instead of a musical comedy. One of the real buy-ins for adults is that we have all been there as middle-school kids. We know the pains of puberty. We know the angst of being different and wanting to fit in. But we also know you live through it very little the worse for wear.”

“Every adult who has sat in on a rehearsal has expressed how surprised they were at the show and how much they enjoyed it. When people see it and enjoy it, I hope they tell their friends. It's a great evening's entertainment.”

The Bay City Players will be presenting performances on September 29-30 and October 1-2. Performance times are 8 PM on Thursday - Saturday and Sundays at 3 PM.

Call 989-893-5555 for tickets or order online at 


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