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Can you spell b-i-t-t-e-r-s-w-e-e-t?


One wrong letter and its all over in fun but fraught Putnam County Spelling Bee

by: COURTESY PHOTO: THEATRE IN THE GROVE - The spellers in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee can also sing and dance! (Back L-R: Brittney Bickel, Kevin Dempsey, Brittney Spady; Middle: William Dober; Front L-R: Justin Canfield, Lynley Shaw).Winning isn’t everything and losing doesn’t necessarily make you a loser.

But that may not be clear, yet, if you’re a middle-school spelling bee finalist with a mucous membrane disorder named William Barfeé (pronounced Bar-FAY) who spells words with his foot and has a crush on a girl whose best friend is a dictionary.

In Theatre in the Grove’s Friday debut of the Tony Award-winning musical comedy, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” six social outcasts in the throes of puberty, overseen by three adults who barely managed to escape childhood themselves, are vying for the spelling bee championship of a lifetime.

“It’s very funny and sweet, but at the same time it’s very sad,” said second-time Director Zachary Centers.

Some characters struggle with overbearing parents or parents not caring enough, while others deal with not feeling smart or not having friends, Centers said. “Each kid has their own idiosyncrasies — nerdy, good-at-everything, ball of energy. They all spell and get eliminated throughout the show.”

If you can’t relate as a former competitor of a national spelling bee, you will most likely relate to the universal feeling of being a kid and growing up, Centers said.

Adult actors ranging in age from 19 to 25 take on the roles of seven- to 14-year-olds in the one-act play, conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn. Six Tony Award nominations followed its 2005 Broadway debut.

With a simple set and simple costumes, the show takes place in the gym of the geographically ambiguous Putnam Middle School, where six youth finalists who’ve succeeded in their district spelling bees will now compete at the county level, brought together by the fact that "they love to spell,” Centers said.

The show opens with Rona Peretti, a real-estate agent played by Jodi Coffman, who recalls the moment she won the third annual spelling bee by correctly spelling syzygy. Rona welcomes the audience to the bee and introduces the spellers — Charlito “Chip,” Barfeé, Leaf, Olive, Marcy and Logainne.

According to the director and the script, they will not be the only ones tested on their spelling.

At each performance, audience participants can sign up to be called on stage by pronouncer Vice Principal Panch, played by Jason Yates, and asked to spell words — from as simple as cat to as treacherous as pheochromocytoma,  a rare tumor that can develop in the cells of adrenal glands.

The words get harder for Putnam spellers, too. Try omphaloskepsis, which means: contemplation of one's navel as an aid to meditation. Can I get that in a sentence, please?

Eliminated spellers will be consoled by the Official Comfort Counselor and ex-convict Mitch Mahoney, played by Stevo Clay, who is actually just performing his community service by handing out juice boxes to losing students.

With musical direction by Alicia Barrett, the show’s songs include “My Friend — the Dictionary,” “I’m not that Smart,” “Magic Foot, and “I Speak Six Languages.”

According to Centers, the show is different every time you see it. Theatre in the Grove mixes up words and the volunteers are never the same.

“It’s fun and you’re going to be really happy at the end of the show. But at the same time, you’re going to feel a little sad and remember what it was like to be a kid, and how hard things are.”