A 'Spelling Bee' for everyone

HART musical comedy to start Friday
By Stina Sieg | Sep 29, 2011
Photo by: Stina Sieg Visiting actor Regina Fernandez gets into character as over-achieving Mary Park in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." The HART musical starts this Thursday.

"Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes...” — Steve Jobs

Anyone who has been a child knows these characters, these youngsters who can’t find their place. They’re the dorks, the loners, the overachievers, the ones with undiagnosed hyperactivity conditions. According to their critical, pint-sized peers, they’re the losers.
For the next three weeks, however, they have the chance to be winners, at least onstage. Haywood Arts Regional Theatre’s newest musical comedy, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” is a celebration of outcasts — and the outcast who exists in everyone.

Director Charles Mills calls the play a “light and fluffy” show that’s a “total comedy,” but he also thinks it has some important things to say. Much more than just the story of the titular spelling bee, it’s the tale of a few contestants’ journeys through the competition.

“It’s all these kind of stereotypical outcasts,” Mills said, “but I think during the course of theshow they’re all able to confront their shortcomings by participating in the bee.”

Or perhaps, he went on, the show is just plain fun.
It’s also a little different than anything HART has ever produced before. Relatively new to the musical theater scene, “Spelling Bee” isn’t a classic in the vein of “Chicago” or

“Gypsy.” It’s a small-scale story, not a grand one, and its musical numbers are funny and witty, not over-the-top opulent.

Mills also explained that while nearly all the characters in the show are children, there isn’t a child in the cast. While the play is “really innocent,” he said, it’s still meant for adults, as there are a few spots of spicy language and a bit of bawdy humor. Plus, with spelling words that range from “cow” to “xerophthalmiology,” it’s probably best understood by a crowd a little older than the grammar-school set, especially considering that some audience members will actually be tapped to be in the show.

Part of the charm of “Spelling Bee” is that a few folks from the crowd will be asked before the show to be in the bee. Those who agree will be tasked to do their very best in the competition until, inevitably, they’ll be eliminated.

At that point, they will be given a juice box and a hug for their trouble and “sent on their merry little way,” Mills said.

This bit of audience participation, a HART first, punches up the show’s good-natured sweetness even more. It’s just one ingredient of many that has made this crowd-pleasing show so well-received. Since 2005, it has been performed on Broadway and around the world and been nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two.

Justin Slack, whose “Spelling Bee” persona is Leaf Coneybear, said that the show “has a lot of heart in it.”

That, in fact, is what drew him to it. As Coneybear, the Florida native plays a socially awkward, home-schooled adolescent. He, like all the “Spelling Bee” contestants, is a little weird. The show, however, doesn’t condemn him. Instead, it dives honestly (and hilariously) into the real problems he faces.

“It does go into wanting to win something, wanting to have friends,” Slack said.
Rod Leigh, who plays one of the few adults in the show, described “Spelling Bee” as a place for children who don’t fit in with “normal” society to find a little common ground. As Mitch Mahoney, the bee’s “comfort counselor,” he’s the one doling out the juice boxes and hugs to eliminated little ones. While he likes the show’s message, he described how he’s also delighted by its musical numbers.

“It’s incredible music,” he said. “It’s a very well-written score. It’s the writing, not just of the score, but of the lyrics.”

If there’s one “Spelling Bee” contestant who truly understands all the ins and outs of the show, it’s Regina Fernandez. Now in her third run as Asian child prodigy Marcy Park, the visiting actor described the show as a “buffet of everything that’s good and great about musical theater.”

It’s not just about the music or the writing or the message. It’s everything, all rolled into one and performed with real caring.

“I love the sincerity of the piece, because every character goes through this journey, and you see a complete change from beginning to end,” she said, an electric energy bouncing from her words.

While Fernandez usually spends her days performing at Walt Disney World, she is able to be in Haywood County because of a special agreement with Equity, her union. For her, being in this production is not just a nice change of pace but an opportunity to experience the show in a whole new way. Her past two productions were at Creede Repertory

Theatre, a well-known company in Colorado. While those shows were larger affairs, with more money behind them, Fernandez explained that the people and resources of HART have amazed her.

“It kind of just all boils down to they’re just doing it for the love of it and not anything else,” she said.

And while HART doesn’t have as many resources as, say, Broadway producers, it doesn’t seem to matter. Fernandez explained that “Spelling Bee” might actually be more accessible in small, intimate theaters than in mammoth playhouses. More than dazzling people, this production is about drawing an audience in and letting them see a little of themselves onstage.

“I think that’s what is great about this show,” Fernandez said, smiling. “Every audience member can find a character that they can relate to. There’s a universality to it.”

Just like its fictitious spelling bee, the show is meant for everyone, misfits most definitely included.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will be at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30 and Oct. 6, 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15. It will run at 3 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 2, 9, 16 at the HART Theatre, 250 Pigeon St. in Waynesville. Chuck Taft is the musical director, while Jacob Wells is the choreographer. William Finn wrote the show’s music and lyrics, and Rachel Sheinkin wrote the book. For tickets and more information, visit www.harttheatre.com or call the box office 456-6322.

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