It’s a weak mind, according to Andrew Jackson, that can’t think of more than one way to spell a word, but that won’t fly at “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
The popular musical will be on stage at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick from March 14 through April 9, and a contestant will spell a word right or hit the road.
“Spelling Bee,” with music and lyrics by William Finn, and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, presents a regional contest—one step toward the national—featuring six quirky adolescents, played by adults, and some grownups who have issues of their own.
The show, which has been produced hundreds of times, had a successful Broadway run in 2005—good enough for six Tony nominations.
The George Street version is directed by Colin Hanlon, an experienced stage and television actor whose credits include the Bucks County Playhouse production of this play.
One of the challenges in directing “Spelling Bee,” Hanlon said, is helping the actors take on the juvenile roles.
“I asked the actors in auditions,” he said, “not to think so much about playing a child as about playing themselves at that age. And on the first day of rehearsal, I told the actors, ‘Picture yourself between the ages of 10 and 12. Talk about what you were like at that age. It’s not about a higher voice or some kind of physicality but about what you were like at that age, your interests, where you lived.’ They very quickly tapped into that, taking on a character’s perspective.”
Despite the title, the setting, and the action, the play isn’t only about a cerebral contest but also about the contestants who are navigating parental approval, self-worth, over confidence, lack of confidence, overactive libido, and behavioral oddities—for instance, the boy who spells the words out with his foot.
The songs provide the vehicle with which the characters reflect out loud on the peculiarities of their lives. As Hanlon sees it, the story is paused as a character expresses unfiltered thoughts in song.
“The second the song ends,” he said, “we drop back into reality. “The kids say what they are thinking in the songs. If they said these things to the adults out loud, they’d be kicked out of the spelling bee.”
“It’s not necessarily about spelling at all,” Hanlon said. “It’s about feeling that you don’t belong anywhere and then finding a group and saying, ‘These are the weirdos I belong with!’ All of these characters don’t fit in anywhere else but at a spelling bee.”
To supplement the characters in the script, presentation of this play involves recruiting four audience members who take turns at spelling words they don’t expect. These characters, who are vetted by theater staff and, Hanlon said, required to take a rapid-response COVID test. They are told to try their best to spell the words thrown at them—different words every night—and ask for definitions, derivations, and alternate pronunciations, as any speller would.
Responsibility for managing these amateurs falls on Douglas Panch, played here by Broadway and off-Broadway vet Kilty Reidy. Panch is a junior high school vice principal who has never been dedicated to anything the way the kids are dedicated to spelling.
Hanlon knows this character well, having played it at Bucks County.
The actor’s job is tricky, because it involves ad libbing and being prepared for the unexpected from the volunteer spellers.
“He has to keep track of who’s on stage and when they have to get off,” Hanlon said. “And he has to make it look like it’s happening for the first time. We’re lucky to have the actor we cast. He’s more than up to the challenge.”
This ingredient guarantees that every performance will be different although, Hanlon said, “that’s a characteristic of live theater anyway.”
In this production, he said, the fourth wall will disappear as spellers come out of the crowd and the characters spend a lot of time out in the house so that the audience becomes part of the show.
The action takes place in a somewhat grim, 70s-ish middle school all-purpose room, but in the present. And so, Hanlon said, “the script needed a little freshening up. There’s cell phone use and a Tik Tok moment. Some jokes didn’t work anymore, so I got the writers’ approval for changes. They were totally on board with it. I think it really works as kids in 2023.”
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” runs at George Street Playhouse from March 14 to April 9, 2023. Click here for ticket information.