Consider “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” sort of “A Chorus Line” for the elementary set.
The hilarious, heartwarming and tuneful Tony Award-winning 2005 musical follows six precocious kids through the thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat in their quest to spell impossible words like “crepuscule” (the show’s original pre-Broadway title.
The romp by Rebecca Feldman (book) and William Finn (music and lyrics) delves into the kids’ backgrounds, off-beat families and fast-developing psyches between rounds of humorous word play. Four audience members who volunteer beforehand get a chance to participate in the bee along with the kids for a more up-close-and-personal experience.
Cabaret Oldtown, which first performed the musical-comedy two years ago, is bringing it back by the popular demand of those who didn’t see it the first time around, said Cabaret owner and show director Christi Moore. On Broadway, the show ran for three years and was nominated for six Tonys, including best musical. It won best book and best featured actor.
“We’re bringing back most of our original cast, but we’re freshening the show up a little,” Moore said. “No two productions can ever be exactly the same, so it will be a little different even for those who’ve seen it.”
Back is Angela Geer as Rona Lisa Peretti, a one-time spelling bee champ herself who, for the past nine years, has been moderator of the competition, reliving her former glory through the enthusiasm of the fresh young faces around her.
Also back is Denny Grilliot as vice principal Douglas Panch, who, after a five-year hiatus because of an unfortunate “incident” at the 20th annual bee, is back as word pronouncer and judge. He’s also carrying a secret torch for Peretti.
John Bates is returning as Mitch Mahoney, an ex-con working off his community service as the official comfort counselor who leads kids off the stage as they are eliminated.
Among the eager young competitors are Megan Parsley as shy, reclusive newcomer Olive; Kyle Vespestad as the goofy, hippie-raised, home-schooled Leaf; and Dylan Lewis as brainy Boy Scout Chip, who is defending the title he won last year but is experiencing some unfortunate hormonal surges at the most inopportune times.
New cast members include Elise Blann as impatient overachiever Marcy; Scott Thomas as William Barfee (pronounced Bar-FAY, he insists), a prickly asthmatic who spells out his words with his “magic foot”; and Ashley Lauren as Schwartzy (actually SchwartzandGrubenierre), a whip-smart, politically aware neat freak raised by two dads.
Coming back to the role of moderator is like slipping into a favorite pair of comfortable shoes, Geer says.
“I love her because she’s still such a kid at heart. She loves kids and is just over the moon to be back as moderator. I don’t often get to do such a nice role,” said Geer, who admits that she’s best known for big, brassy roles because she can be a powerhouse belter.
Geer also said she enjoys the audience interplay as her character weaves ad libs and banter into the required script.
“I get to break the fourth wall and play with the audience. That makes each performance different every night,” Geer said.
To play shy Olive, Parsley said she draws inspiration from her own 8-year-old daughter as well as memories from her own spelling bee experiences, where, she said, “I didn’t get very far.”
“We all have a deep-seated need for acceptance. Olive misses her mother, who is out of the country, and her father is often too busy to be part of her life, so her best friends are books,” Parsley said. “I love that in the progress of the show, we get to see her come out of her shell as she finds a new passion: competition. It points to such exciting possibilities.”
Parsley said coming back to the role was surprisingly easy because she has such good memories from before.
“I usually prefer more of a challenge, to develop a new character rather than return to one I’ve done before,” Parsley said. “But this one is special. I enjoyed it so much I wanted to do it again before I get too old to play it.”