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Becoming a Guest Speller for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” Gives Reviewer a Unique Perspective

Putnam county spelling bee raleigh little theatre

On opening night last Friday, my perspective on Raleigh Little Theatre‘s production of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE was not that of a typical first-nighter, because I had the privilege and honor of being one of the four audience members recruited before each performance to join the cast onstage as “guest spellers.” Guest spellers get to participate in all of the fun and fast-paced spelling bee action of the show until a lapse in concentration, a slip of the tongue, or an errant spelling triggers the dreaded “ding” of the elimination bell that signals a misspelled word and banishes the guest speller from the stage.

Susie Potter, Arts Reporter

My sojourn onstage commenced mere moments after the cast completed its lively opening number (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”). I barely had time to take in the realistic school gymnasium set before I found myself lining up with the other spellers, with a number placard hanging around my neck.

The guest spellers sit on bleachers with the cast, but the cast stays in character for the entire show. So, as I tried to find a place on the bleachers, the cocky, stuck-up Marcy Park, played to nasally-voiced perfection by Aurelia Belfield, barked, “Not there, fancy,” and directed me to the correct seat.

Other characters in the show include Rona Lisa Perretti (Carly Prentis Jones), top-notch realtor, former spelling bee champ, and moderator for the bee; Mitch Mahoney (David Adams), the lovable ex-convict who’s doing community service as spelling bee comfort counselor; and vice principal Douglas Panch (Jason Matthews), the spelling bee’s official word pronouncer who harbors an unrequited crush on Ms. Perretti. Although all of these characters are enjoyable in their own right, it’s really the “kids” who steal the show.

The audience is introduced and forever endeared to Boy Scout Chip Tolentino (Jon Karnofsky), last year’s champ who’s come back to win another victory; little Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Adrienne Morton), the lisping political activist struggling to meet the sky-high expectations of her two gay dads; hilarious and lovable underdog Leaf Coneybear (Jon Todd); nerdy, overweight William Barfée (Jeffrey Vizcaino) and his “magic foot”; the high-pressured perfectionist Marcy Park (Aurelia Belfield); and the shy and sweet Olive Ostrovsky (Mary Reilly), who’s holding out hopes that her always-absent father will show up to watch the bee.

Before attempting to spell an unfamiliar word, spelling bee contestants may ask word pronouncer Douglas Panch to define the word or use it in a sentence; and much of the humor in THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE comes from Matthews’ deadpan delivery of these tongue-in-cheek definitions and silly sentences. Because the spellers’ microphone faced the audience, I couldn’t see some of the cast’s facial expressions and body language as they reacted in exasperation to these witty one-liners, but big laughs from the audience confirmed that these fine comic actors were scoring big points with RLT patrons.

As a guest speller, I experienced the thrill, excitement, and incredible energy of the show first hand. My palms were sweating, and my heart was pounding as I stared out at the packed house, desperately afraid of misspelling an easy word and hearing the terrifying ding of the elimination bell. It was fair punishment for any theater reviewer. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Susie Potter outlasted the other three guest spellers.]

I finally blew it on “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,” but even then I fared much better than the nervous guest speller who incorrectly spelled, “Mexican,” by starting with “M-I- ….” DING! This unexpected turn of events proved just how well-prepared and professional the Raleigh Little Theatre cast and crew, under the sure-handed direction of RLT guest director Rod Rich, is. None of the actors, lighting crew members, or sound technicians were expecting to hear “M-I-” come out of that unlucky speller’s mouth, but they all jumped into action, plunging into a plucky rendition of the “Good-bye” song that follows each guest spellers’ departure, right on cue.

Other very enjoyable moments in the show were the cast’s performance of the stomping, frenzied “Pandemonium” production number crisply choreographed by Nancy Rich , and a scene in which the entire cast moves and speaks in believable slow motion. While all of the actors pull their weight with performances on par with seasoned professionals, Todd’s endearing portrayal of Leaf Coneybear and Vizcaino’s perpetually grouchy William Barfée (pronounced “Bar-fay,” not “Bar-fee,” dammit) shine brighter than the rest.

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE has a lot of heart, plus an ample supply of fun and games, including a comical encounter with a very tall Jesus. Audience members are left to question the motivations of many of the parents who have entered their children into this spelling bee and the fathers and mothers who didn’t show up at all to support their kids. Viewers will also empathize with the great pressure experienced by many of the young contestants.

The first main-stage show of Raleigh Little Theatre‘s 75th anniversary season opened on Friday, Aug. 6th, and will run Thursday-Sunday through August 29th. Viewers who wish to get in on the fun and excitement of the show and try their hand at being a guest speller are encouraged to show up about a half-hour early and sign up for the opportunity. I, for one, had an absolute blast. Being a part of this show is an experience that I will not soon forget.

Raleigh Little Theatre presents THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at 8 p.m. Aug. 6 and 7; 3 p.m. Aug. 8; 8 p.m. Aug. 12-15, 19-22, 26-29; and 3 p.m. Aug. 15, 22, and 29 on RLT’s Cantey V. Sutton Main Stage, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.

TICKETS: $22 ($18 students and seniors 62+), except all seats $12 on Aug. 8th.

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