With adult actors playing tweens, Holland Civic Theatre takes on the comedy, awkwardness and anxiety of adolescence in its delightful fall musical.
Set at a spelling bee and filled with a quirky cast of characters, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is based on the book by Rachel Sheinkin and features a catchy score by William Finn. The opening song highlights what’s at stake: “Plasma TV, fancy hotel, Washington, D.C. — all because you love to spell. It’s a marvelous memory if you win the spelling bee.”
But the play also explores the idea that winning and losing isn’t everything, and the contestants discover their own voice through the process.
The Broadway musical typically has college-age students playing the tweens, but HCT Director Sue Ann Culp decided to cast middle-age and older adults.
“I wanted to give older actors the opportunity to stretch and be in touch with their inner child and it’s working really, really well,” she said. “It won’t be your traditional show that people may have seen in the past; the flavor will be a little different.”
Billed a “riotous ride” and “a delightful den of comedic genius,” the action revolves around six eccentric 12-year-olds, all from different schools and all vying for the spelling bee title to advance to nationals.
As they spell their way through a series of words, the audience has a front-row seat to witty self-disclosure, parental pressures and humorous details about their personal lives. There are some adult themes, but it’s PG-13.
“It’s definitely a comedy, but with any comedy, there has to be moments of poignancy,” Culp said. “It’s a very fun show.”
The audience learns about each speller’s background through flashbacks and songs including I’m Not That Smart, My Unfortunate Erection and Woe Is Me.
Jason Craner plays Leaf Coneybear, an awkward homeschool student who placed third in his qualifying competition and is there because the top finishers couldn’t attend. While he’s not as smart as the others, and often called dumb by his family, “he loves it because he’s finally part of something,” Craner said.
There are laugh-out-loud moments and poignant moments, where the students are finding out what they really want and coming into their own in spite of pressures and disappointments.
“They are starting to figure out who they are and it takes the spelling bee to do that, but it’s also super funny because you’re dealing with children who are navigating that and don’t know what to do,” Craner said. “The audience can really find things about themselves when they were kids and they can laugh at it.”
At 34 years old, Sonnet Quinn is the youngest of the spellers and plays Marcy Park, a recent transfer from Virginia who placed ninth at last year’s nationals. She excels at everything and attends parochial school. She doesn’t speak one language or even two — she speaks six, which she sings about in an aptly named song, I Speak Six Languages.
“The kids and their situations are funny, but I don’t think they know it,” Quinn said. “It’s a musical that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s funny, it’s silly.”
The spellers are trying to avoid the dreaded “ding” — signaling their elimination — and ask for usage-in-a-sentence definitions that also provide some comic relief. Adding to the antics: Audience participation and a comfort counselor doing community service who gives out juice boxes to the exiting contestants.
Craner grew up in a family of thespians and has acted in several area productions. He praised the cast of the Bee.
“This is the most talented cast I have worked with,” he said. “Everyone is perfectly fit for the characters they were cast as. The singers are so good. This is not going to be a typical local theater production”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Holland Civic Theatre
50 W 9th St, Holland
Oct. 4-20, $20, adults, $18, seniors
hollandcivictheatre.org, (616) 396-2021