It isn’t enough anymore to know how to spell “staphylococci” or “pococurante” or even “guetapens” to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Now kids must define words as well to hold that golden trophy.
But not so in Putnam County. In this charming fictional community, the spelling bee competition sticks to the basics. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” debuted on Broadway in 2005, earning positive reviews and two Tony Awards. This week, American Stage brings the musical comedy to Demens Landing for the company’s annual park production.
The show was based on Rebecca Feldman’s improvisational act, “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E.” William Finn contributed music and lyrics to Rachel Sheinkin’s book, and together they put Putnam Valley Middle School on the M-A-P. Theirs is a kinder world in which no one need know that “staphylococci” is icky. It’s all about the kids.
“All of the characters are so readily identifiable,” said director Stephen Flaa. “You absolutely fall in love with these characters. By the time people are being eliminated, you feel sad. The first time I saw the show, the character Logainne, when she got eliminated – that ripped my heart out. It’s incredibly funny, but then it turns on a dime.”
Six middle-schoolers, all dealing with some adolescent issue, take the stage for the much-anticipated annual event. Olive Ostrovsky’s parents are never around; Leaf Coneybear thinks he’s dumb; William Barfée has a peanut allergy and a “magic foot”; Chip Tolentino suffers from untimely erections; Marcy Park is exhausted from overachieving; and Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre is an insufferable know-it-all with two intense, gay fathers.
Per tradition, four members of the audience are chosen in advance to be impromptu participants on stage. The rules, according to Flaa, preclude anyone who is drunk. Volunteers must also be mobile and neither too young nor too old. The moderators – played by Matthew McGee and Laura Hodos –will manage the situation, especially when it’s time for the volunteers to make their exit. That’s when things really get inventive.
“I’ve seen some productions where [the judges] give them hard words and they get them and [the judges] keep trying to get rid of them. Matthew and Laura have … made up words and oblique definitions and obscure words. When all of the volunteers in the audience are to be offstage, that’s when they use words that are made up,” said Flaa.
For example, if a contestant already have mastered “fracas,” “malfeasance” and “shalloon,” he or she might just get zapped with “zuuzuu”: a candy or confectionary sold to prisoners from a vending machine.
Used in a sentence: “On his field trip to Sing Sing, Billy learned that bending over to retrieve your zuuzuu is a no-no.”
‘THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE’