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'Spelling Bee' at The Wayward Artist

Updated: 2 days ago

The troupe’s thrust stage space is ideally suited to putting the audience right into the musical’s storyline, action and characters.

What do you get when you take six eccentric, unusual adolescent students and put them in a spelling bee that’s being run by three adults who are equally idiosyncratic?

The answer is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

The 2005 musical hasn’t had a production in Orange County in quite a few years. That means fans of the show will want to catch The Wayward Artist’s July 2024 production. So will anyone who has heard about the show but never seen it.

For those not in the know, the show was conceived by Rebecca Feldman. Its music and lyrics are by William Finn (“Falsettos,” “A New Brain,” “Little Miss Sunshine”) and its book, by Rachel Sheinkin (“Striking 12,” “Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” “Little House on the Prairie”), won a Tony Award for Best Book. “Spelling Bee” also contains additional material by Jay Reiss (“Dead Cat,” “The Complete History of My Sexual Failures”).

Director Sydney Raquel Fitzgerald, Wayward Artist’s co-artistic director, calls the show “a comedically genius musical full of the quirkiest characters” and notes that one of its key elements, the participation of audience members on a nightly basis, results in “masterfully integrated improvisation” handled and delivered by cast members.

This is Fitzgerald’s first time directing the show. “I haven’t seen ‘Spelling Bee’ done locally before, and I knew I wanted to direct our musical this season.”

She said the show’s “bold comedy and catchy songs” are what drew her to it, citing two of the songs, “Pandemonium” and “Magic Foot,” as examples: They “balance playful instrumentation with clever lyrics and catchy melody lines that have you humming the songs later.”

From Left: Brooke Halliday, Erick Sanchez, Micah Nicholson, Joelle B Lurie, Jenna Luck, Clayton Michael Walker

Numerous themes spell out this show’s meaning

The show, its director says, communicates multiple themes – primarily, “the pressures of competition, striving for ‘perfection,’ and individuality, (which) plays a huge role for the characters.”

Fitzgerald said these are intermingled “with smaller themes throughout,” including “family dynamics, loss, alienation, and puberty.” All of these themes, she notes, “are relatable” and are the focus of her staging.

Her cast members are crucial to imparting the show’s themes: “I love actors connecting with the audience, so I allow my actors to really see the audience in these thematically-driven moments.”

Design as a product of content

“I also push these relevant themes in collaboration with my designers to deepen the connection,” the director said. She encouraged design team members like Teddy Pagee (scenic design), Christopher Aceves (costumes) and Axiom Cutler (lighting) to take their cues from the show.

Fitzgerald said one of the major themes she wanted to emphasize “was individuality among the characters. I compared them to a box of crayons – unique, bold, and childlike while also fragile.”

She elaborated, saying Aceves “took this connection by designating a color from a classic Crayola box to each character, which adds an extra layer as well for why each character holds their specific color.”

For an example of personality being translated to color, Olive Ostrovsky’s melancholic nature is reflected in her ballads – a tendency which has, in turn, inspired the use of the color blue as the focus of her costumes.

From Left: Angel Correa, Carolyn Lupin and Jake Burnett

Spectators become participants

One of the most unusual aspects of “Spelling Bee” is that on a nightly basis, four members of the audience are invited up onto the stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the show’s six fictional characters.

“Upon arrival audience members can sign up to be a potential volunteer participant in the Bee. We will only enlist those who choose to participate!”

“There are rules within participating including ‘Do not act. Be yourself,’ ‘Ask for a definition of the word and use it in a sentence,’ and ‘Try to actually spell the word’.”

During the show, the actor playing the character running the Bee will call up the chosen volunteers to get them onto the stage. As we get deeper and deeper into the play, each volunteer will be eliminated throughout the production as they participate in the competition.

Fitzgerald said the audience participation is “definitely” the key challenge to staging “Bee.”

“No show will be the same. You never know what the volunteers will bring to the stage and planning for the improvisation is practically impossible, but no less fun.”

Casting was a ‘Bee’ key

Raquel said that in casting, “I knew these characters needed the boldest actors. I was drawn to actors who made the wildest choices and lived so freely on stage in these roles with no fear – true triple threats with amazing voices and impeccable talent.”

She said she found precisely what she was looking for and is “completely enthralled by them every rehearsal. They are so brilliantly unique and work so cohesively together, I just can’t wait to share them with audiences.”

The six actors playing the students participating in the spelling bee are Jenna Luck (as Olive Ostrovsky), Micah Nicholson (as William Barfee), Joelle B. Lurie (Logainne Schwartzandgrubeniere), Clayton Michael Walker (Leaf Coneybear), Brooke Halliday (Marcy Park) and Erick Sanchez (Chip Tolentino).

For the three offbeat, outlandish adults running the bee, the competition brings back vivid memories of their own childhood experiences vying for a spelling bee title. Wayward has Carolyn Lupin as Bee moderator Rona Lisa Peretti, Angel Correa as school vice-principal Douglas Panch and Jake Burnett as counselor Mitch Mahoney.

What can Wayward bring to its version of “Spelling Bee”? “Our space always enhances the production with its intimate proximity. In our thrust space, you are fully in the Bee with us, taking the journey with the ensemble.”

The show must be fun to helm, no? “I love the freedom to craft heartwarming moments alongside wildly inappropriate bits of comedy,” Fitzgerald said. “From budding awkward romance to ‘unfortunate erections,’ I love creating the story within the lines and songs.”

Fitzgerald has tapped Jennifer Schniepp as musical director and Jennifer Kornswiet as choreographer, noting that for Finn’s score, Schniepp “had the custom tracks from another production she had done previously” and is using those here.

The director said Schniepp characterizes the show’s score as “a perfect blend of upbeat and ballad. It builds in the overarching theme of the pressure of a spelling bee, but with humor and heart.”

Musical director Schniepp summarizes “Spelling Bee” as “simply a well-written show which does everything a musical should do.”

From Left: Micah Nicholson and Jenna Luck

Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects for more than 39 years as a freelance and staff journalist at a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

The Wayward Artist

Grand Central Arts Center, 125 N. Broadway, Suite E, Santa Ana

July 12 - 28, 2024

(657) 205-6273,

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