One kid reads the dictionary for fun; another uses his foot to visualize the words before he spells them. Then there’s the girl who sleeps just three hours a night and the overachieving 6-year-old who started her school’s first gay-straight alliance. They all have the same goal: to be deemed the best speller in the county.
At its core, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is about the pressure on these grade schoolers. But it’s also about the awkwardness of just being their age.
With material like that, the upcoming show at the Palace Theatre promises to be hilarious.
A brief history: The production began as a non-musical play (titled “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E”) by an improvisational group called The Farm, according to the play’s Broadway website (spellingbeethemusical.com). The first production took place in 2004 with the Barrington Stage Company in a cafeteria-turned-theater, and it hit Broadway in April 2005, where it was extended and eventually won two Tony Awards, for Best Book of a Musical and Best Featured Actor.
The production will be put together in typical Palace Theatre fashion, in just two weeks’ time, but a great number of the people playing these overachieving kids are some Palace favorites, said Megan Quinn, Palace Youth Theatre Company manager. Shana Dirik returns as Rona Lisa (she played Mama Morton in Chicago); Jamie Bradley is playing William Barfee (he was Amos in Chicago), and Marc Nichols is returning, as are Blane Pressler (Nathan Detroit in Guys & Dolls) and Shane O’Neil (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change).
So will Quinn, who plays Logainne Schwartzengrubenierre. She’s the youngest and most politically aware speller at just 6 years old. The daughter of two overbearing fathers, she started the gay-straight alliance at her school. Quinn says that her role as the youth theater administrator and company administrator (it’s her first professional show in the latter position) will only help in her capturing the role of a 6-year-old whose personality most resembles Hillary Clinton.
She’s no stranger to this production. She played Olive, a very shy and reserved student, in a Portsmouth production two years ago. The play is hilarious, but it’s important that it’s done in a way that’s not slapstick funny, but rather demonstrates how kids really are. That, Quinn said, is funny.
“Even though each individual child has their little quirk that makes it a comedy, I feel that it’s important to remember that we’re portraying kids, and that we need to be honest in how kids feel,” Quinn said. “...playing a child is funny in itself because they’re so truthful and honest in how they feel,” Quinn said.
Each show is different. Quinn has to make up a new political 6-year-old’s rant for Logainne in every show (so prepare for some current political pop culture), and during each show there are new spellers on stage. In what is perhaps one of the highlights of the show, three new contestants are enlisted each night from the audience.
“Before the show starts, we’re going to have people out in the lobby, asking if they’d like to be in the spelling bee,” Quinn said, and from that list, four names are called out throughout the play. “It’s always exciting because we don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Quinn said. “Your best friend is on stage — who knows what they’ll do! That’s the fun part!”
This production also marks the beginning of a more extended showtime schedule: During this production, the Palace offers the chance to see the show Thursday nights, as well as weekend nights.