New Playhouse production hits all the right n-o-t-e-s
— Created January 31, 2024 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
The newest Whidbey Playhouse production is a little bit n-a-u-g-h-t-y, is full of wit and c-h-a-r-m, and makes for a whole lot of f-u-n with a capital “F.”
The musical production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” opens Friday and will run every weekend through Feb. 25, with evening performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. (There is one exception – there is no show Sunday, Feb. 11; that matinee has been rescheduled to Saturday, Feb. 10.) Tickets are $25 each and can be purchased online at whidbeyplayhouse.com or at the box office, located at 730 SE Midway Blvd. in Oak Harbor. Some content may not be suitable for young children; consider it a PG-13 kind of show.
With music and lyrics by William Finn, the show was originally conceived by Rebecca Feldman and is based on the book by Rachel Sheinkin with additional material provided by Jay Reiss. The show is directed for Whidbey Playhouse by Matt Montoya, his first time in this role, although he has been on stage in numerous productions. Erin Tombaugh, also a seasoned Playhouse performer, is the musical director.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” takes place at the fictional Putnam Valley Middle School in Anywhere, USA. While the setting may be generic, the cast of characters is anything but.
“The show is about a group of quirky, sometimes eccentric kids that love spelling,” Montoya described. “They all have their own special methods of spelling. It appealed to me, as I won a spelling bee back in middle school. There was no song and dance, however.”
With a strong cast of actors and equally strong vocal talent, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a charming romp that is sure to stir up memories of middle school for those watching. Every performance will be different, as “guest spellers” from the audience will also compete.
“It has been very fun having some of our family and friends at rehearsals to get the cast used to that little wrinkle,” Montoya said. “I hope the guest spellers have as much fun! I have not left a rehearsal without a smile and great laughs throughout. Also, my directing has been a bit hands off. The actors are the ones that perform the show, and I, hopefully, have given the cast enough room to fill their characters, rather than forcing my perspective of the character on them.”
While the music may not be well known or familiar, it is engaging. A live band on stage is a fun element as well. And it is through the music we learn the most about the characters – their quirks, their habits, their heartbreaks.
“Almost every main character has a featured solo, each varying in style,” Tombaugh described. “Not only does this show each character’s unique style, but the variety keeps the show interesting and progressing. Most of the show takes place in the present, but a few songs and scenes include flashbacks that offer a peek at the spellers’ background and family life, sharing insight into why the children are the way they are.”
Another element that makes “Spelling Bee” so fun to watch is that most of the characters are portrayed by actors who are years – in some cases decades – removed from their middle school years. Cast members say that was both challenging and helpful.
“Every character is relatable. If not to you directly, then you know someone like them,” said Andrew Huggins, who plays Chip Tolentino, the reigning spelling bee champion. “For 13-year-olds, we have some pretty complex back stories. As the oldest actor in the show (49 playing 13), remembering back to adolescence and how awkward those moments can be [was challenging].”
“I wasn’t super familiar with this show, but I had heard it was really funny, and when I got the script, I was not disappointed,” said Karina Andrew, who plays Marcy Park, whom she described as a “burned out, gifted kid.” “The characters in this show are all so quirky—they don’t really fall into any of the typical boxes you see in musical characters, which was really fun for us as actors, and I think will be fun for the audience as well.
“I actually identify with Marcy pretty deeply,” she continued. “Growing up, I also participated in an excessive number of extracurricular activities and put a lot of pressure on myself to be the best at everything I did. I learned later the same thing Marcy learns during the course of the show—that I don’t need to wear myself ragged chasing arbitrary achievements to prove my worth.”
“You ask me to throw on an accent – great! You want me to sing and dance – absolutely! But a socially awkward, frustrated, overachieving 12-year-old? That took me a minute to develop,” shared Andrew Pierzchala, who plays William Morris Barfee. “The characters of this show go so deep, you really need to put yourself in that mindset to find what the character needs to come to life. I had to really go back in time to when I struggled in school at that age – I was socially awkward, had difficulty fitting in, and definitely wanted to be an overachiever. Thinking back on how it felt helped me get into character – all I really had to do after that was throw on Barfee’s genuinely ‘jerk’ attitude to make the perfect combo.”
“I play Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, the youngest competitor in the bee,” said Shelby Montoya. “She is very politically driven and is the president of the gay/straight alliance at her school. My character has a speech impediment; learning that has been my biggest challenge because I want it to be as accurate as possible. I love how much I can relate to this character! Logainne is not shy about speaking her mind. Logainne is what a lot of people would probably consider ‘outspoken,’ but she really is just a strong, competent young woman.”
Stina Queeno, who has multiple roles in the play, said the show appealed to her because of the comedy.
“Constance Rose, like many 6th graders, is a little nervous to be competing,” Queeno said. “She is sensitive and has a big heart but also can’t help but join her peers when they laugh at the unfortunate misfortune of other contestants. The most challenging thing for me has been that it has been such a long time since I was a terrified, insecure, self-conscious 6th grader. I remember being terrified to perform in front of an audience or give oral reports at school, but it feels like that child existed a few lifetimes ago.”
Dany Stahl, who plays Leaf Coneybear, is pleased this musical has broadened their theatrical horizons.
“My favorite part of this character is I just get to play myself, but amplified. They’re about 12 years old and heavily remind me of myself at that age,” Stahl said. “Very unsure of themselves, still learning who they are but confident in who they are becoming. I think the hardest thing about my character is just how similar we are. There are times where they don’t always feel supported by their family and I feel that in more ways than one. It’s hard when you know you’re loved, but not the way you want to be loved.”
There are also a couple of newcomers to the Playhouse stage in this production.
“I thought it would be a great experience to be a part of [this show], and super fun,” said Boden Lemley, who plays Robert Random. “I’ve only been a part of the audience before. My favorite thing about my character would be that I was able to create my own name. There was not really much difficulty with having to play my character; [he’s] just a normal kid.”
Laurie Russell said the hardest part of playing her character was, well, the spelling.
“Olive Ostrovsky is a shy girl that has found a talent for spelling. Her best friend is her dictionary and her home life is not very happy,” Russell shared. “I didn’t participate in spelling bees in school. I’ve never been a particularly good speller unless I can write it down, so spelling out loud was scary.
“I love how much we see Olive grow throughout the show,” she continued. “I feel very connected to her, starting out shy and gaining confidence, despite her circumstances.”
The young spellers are at the heart of this story, but there are adult characters that lend a lot to both the comedy and the warmth of the story.
“My character is Rona Lisa Peretti, and I have been told she is the exact opposite of my personality,” said Rain Davidson. “She is a realtor who is the host of the Bee, and takes delight in making mean jokes about contestants under the guise of ‘fun facts.’ It was certainly a challenge to play a character that is so catty and mean, but at the same time is a great challenge.”
Wesley Moran plays vice principal Douglas Panch.
“One of the biggest challenges is maintaining the balance between humor and sincerity. Panch is funny, but he’s also a real person with depth. It’s important to me that he doesn’t become a caricature,” he said, adding it is difficult to pick one favorite scene in the show. “I love the moments of unexpected interaction with the spellers. The improvisational aspect of these interactions keeps the show fresh and exciting.”
The cast member who may have had the biggest challenge getting into character was likely Grace Jones.
“The most challenging thing for me was DEFINITELY turning a short, 17-year-old female into a tall, male, ex-felon, especially as one of the youngest people in the cast,” she said. “Mitchell (Mitch) Mahoney is on parole, doing his community service for the Putnam Bee after being in prison for an unknown reason. Despite his past, he sympathizes with the kids because ‘they don’t yet know that the good don’t always win, so there’s nothing you can say to them when they lose,’ so he does his best in giving them hugs and juice boxes to cheer them up. Mitch looks rough on the outside, but he’s a very gentle and caring person.”
So break out the dictionary – or not – and get ready for an entertaining night at the Playhouse. Visit whidbeyplayhouse.com for tickets and information.
“I hope audiences leave with a sense of joy and a reminder of the importance of empathy and understanding,” said Moran. “While the show is undoubtedly funny, it also has a lot of heart and speaks to the experiences of growing up and facing challenges.”
“The middle school moments will have you looking back on your own pre-teen days (hopefully fondly!), the jokes will have you laughing hysterically, and the music and dance numbers will have you tapping your toes or maybe even wanting to do a kick line,” said Tombaugh.
“I hope [people] will enjoy being reminded of those awkward years, which were anything but funny when we were in 6th grade,” said Queeno. “It is easy to laugh looking back, because we survived.”