Audiences love scary stories, and what on this doggone planet is scarier than spelling bees? On one hand, you have a microphone thrust in your face — public speaking being America’s No. 1 phobia — and on the other hand, who in his or her right mind can spell syzygy or capybara or qaimaqam … whatever any of those mean?
And yet, we see it all the time in this country’s mania for spelling bees: There are some youngsters who display a savantlike ability for spelling, even if they’ve never heard the word before, and can compute all of the Latin derivatives, syllable by syllable. They’re like dowsers — those crazy people who can locate water with seemingly nothing but a ragged twig. What makes a child a genius speller?
As one might imagine, many of these kids are quirky, to say the least. In “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” there’s painfully shy Olive (Ana Marie Calise, a senior at NYU Tisch School of the Arts), who writes the proffered word with her finger on her sleeve before she spells it out loud. Leaf (Sam Permar, a junior at Tisch) is alarmed into contortions at the word thrown at him, then suddenly, with a side tilt of his head, spells it perfectly. William Barfee (“with an accent aigu!” he shouts at anyone who pronounces his last name “barfy”); played by Jordan Brown (recent graduate of BU, now working on a BU B.F.A. in acting), stumbles and twitches with a neurological disorder, but is so brilliant at spelling he delivers his word by etching it on the floor with the toe of his sneaker. When he’s told he’s correct, he’s already walking back to his seat with an “I know” over his shoulder.
Darby Patterson, who’ll be attending Boston Conservatory in the fall, plays another shambling soul who happens to be a great speller, young Logainne, who’s so tongue-tied she’s virtually incoherent. Ben Nadelstein, a senior at MVRHS, plays the likable and smarter-than-he-thinks Chip. Katie Clark, an ’09 graduate of Endicott now majoring in theater education at Emerson, plays Marcy, a classic “sweet young thing.”
Three grownup characters bring further pandemonium to the arc, “pandemonium” being a much-sung-about theme as the students fret over high stakes and teen hormones. There’s the vice principal, moderator, and word caller, played with divine understated sarcasm by former actual Oak Bluffs School Principal Laury Binney. The prim and prissy long-ago spelling champ Rona Lisa Peretti is brought to us by Barbara Dworkin Binder, in her real life a second-grade assistant teacher at the West Tisbury School. And then there’s the character of Mitch, some sort of ex-con enlisted as a slightly frightening comfort coach, rendered by Island-grown actor Rykerr Maynard. Aaron Teves, set designer and one of the featured “off-Islanders” now studying at Rhode Island School of Design, will play Laury Binny’s role when Mr. Binny will be off to view the new pitcher for the Red Sox on Tuesday.
The producers of this hilarious musical are the modestly named Genius Genius Productions and Spindrift Studios, with hands-on producer Jane Dreeben. Two years ago, the company of mostly Vineyard kids and mostly Vineyard adults, with a couple of off-Island invitees, started their reign under PAC lights with “Spring Awakening,” followed up last summer with a fabulously polished rendition of “Hair.”
Ms. Dreeben said many of the kids in the shows “have acted together since the age of 5 at the ITW Children’s Summer Theater Program.” For “Spelling Bee,” Ms. Dreeben and others heard through Boston contacts about the talents of director Bryn Boice, a graduate of BU now working on an M.F.A. in directing. She shares the fine choreography work with Sandra Stone.
On the music front, the four adult onstage musicians, Mike Tinus on cello, Anne Davey on clarinet, Julie Schilling on sax and flute, and Silas Berlin on drums, were taken aback to learn they’d be directed by 18-year-old George Luton on keyboard, straight from his freshman year at Vassar. And yet the minute they met the tall, thin, dashing young man in vest and tie, who calls cast and crew to order with the self-confidence of a grown prodigy, they embraced him in no uncertain terms. The ensemble is smokin’ (not that the dignified composer and musician would necessarily use so vulgar a term).
A final note about Jane Dreeben, who pulled together these three summers of wondrous musicals: She’s a psychologist by day, and in recent seasons produced a book of photographs and essays about Island artists called “The Urge to Create: Vineyard Portraits” (check to see if you’re in it).
Other vital credits for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” include music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, and original direction on Broadway by our summer Island’s own James Lapine. The stage manager is Emilia Cappella, lighting and sound by Ben Davey, and graphic design by Kathleen Forsythe.
The show will run at the Performing Arts Center on July 19, 20, 21, and 22 at 7:30 pm. All proceeds benefit the Vineyard House for sober living. Tickets may be bought online or for $20 at the door, but beware: If you show up, part of the goofy fun of the musical is that three random members of the audience are called up to partake of the contest. Do you not wish to stand in the spotlight and be asked to spell “palaestra”? Scrunch down in your seat when the names are called.