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'Putnam County Spelling Bee’ spells out some feel-good fun

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By Sara Miller

For many people, the mention of a spelling bee brings back memories of sweaty hands, dashed hopes when the buzzer indicated the word was wrong, and impossibly challenging words like “eudaemonic.” From an outsider’s perspective, however, a spelling bee can provide comic and sentimental fodder. In their latest production, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the Evergreen Players bring to life the coming-of-age microcosm that a spelling bee is for a group of misfit middle-schoolers and the wacky adults that surround them. It’s an evening of words and laughs that will be E-X-T-R-A-O-R-D-I-N-A-R-Y.

 

“Spelling Bee” is the perfect show for the dog days of summer: light, hilarious and offering up a bit of feel-good fun. The antics take place in a middle school gymnasium and throw the audience straight into the nail-biting heart of the county spelling bee. The show opens with an introduction to Rona Lisa Peretti. Peretti won the third annual spelling bee and still carries a torch for the competition — an ex-officio Miss America of the lexicographic world.

Peretti introduces the six spellers, who include a returning champion, an overachieving transfer student, an allergy-prone boy who traces the spelling words with his foot, and more. We also meet the high-strung vice principal, who has recovered from an “unfortunate incident” at the 20th Annual Spelling Bee, and Mitch Mahoney, a tough convict who is serving his community service as a “comfort counselor” offering up hugs and juice boxes to the forlorn eliminated spellers.

The other stars of this musical are the four guest spellers who will be selected from the audience at each performance. These brave (or naïve) participants will be subjected to a barrage of spelling words along with the cast members, and will find themselves eventually eliminated. Those who last beyond one spelling word may find themselves in the midst of a dance number or an improve session from the cast that rivals a night at Second City.

The cast spent an evening with Scott Ogle, director of Evergreen’s improvisational comedy troupe, EPiC, and received a crash course in improve technique.

“The fun of this show is that it is scripted but also has this off-the-cuff improv element,” says Brenda Billings, the show’s assistant director. “Our guest spellers aren’t actors; they are community members who we will pull out of the audience to participate. Our cast has to react on their feet to each guest speller’s personality and idiosyncrasies. This brings a fresh energy to each show. People might want to see multiple productions just to see how the dynamics of the show change.”

After the guest spellers are eliminated, the show rests on the strength of the well-written script and the cast, is a tight-knit group of young professionals from the Denver area. The cast’s musical song-and-dance antics are accompanied by a three-piece ensemble of piano, drums and a multi-instrument woodwind player.

The heart of the show is the comedy found in the universally awkward teenage years. In the midst of hormone-laden fantasies and the daily dose of embarrassment that made all of us cringe during our middle school years come a hearty dose of lofty dreams and goals. The characters are singing and dancing V-I-C-T-O-R-Y.

Sara Miller, a freelance writer and a resident of Evergreen, lives with her husband, two children and a dog.

“25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

Presented by the Evergreen Players July 15 through Aug 7; Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.

Center/Stage Theater in Evergreen, 27608 Fireweed Drive

Tickets cost $8 to $18. To reserve tickets, call 303-674-4934 or visit www.evergreenplayers.org

This show is rated PG-13 due to some adult language and mature content.