By Juan A. Ramirez, Staff Writer
The theatre department at Northeastern University (NU) is breaking the barriers between cast and audience in its new production of the acclaimed musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” directed by Scott Edmiston.
With a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn, the show first premiered at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. before opening on Broadway in 2005, where it earned the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. The musical comedy is centered around a spelling bee at the fictional Putnam Valley Middle School and the six teenage finalists attempting to win.
“One of the things I love about ‘Spelling Bee’ is that it’s all about the characters as opposed to scenery and costumes and lights like other Broadway shows,” Edmiston, director of the show and chair of the theatre department, said. “If we look at Broadway musicals as mainstream, ‘Spelling Bee’ is like an indie musical – it’s quirky, offbeat and has a sensibility that’s uniquely its own.”
The one-act musical incorporates heavy use of audience interaction and involvement into its plot, with audience members invited to the stage to try their luck at the competition.
“There is a certain improvisational foundation to the piece,” Edmiston said. “What I came to discover is that ‘Spelling Bee’ started out as an improv show in which the actors would improvise every night with the audience to see who would win.”
This improvisational foundation provides the show with its best laughs, but also poses a challenge to the actors, who have had to adapt to sharing the stage with volunteers and possible mishaps.
“The very first time we rehearsed with an audience, it threw everyone off,” Sebastian Alberdi, a junior English major playing Leaf Coneybear, said. “At this point, we’ve gotten so comfortable with the show that we have a really good time with the audience members and even talk to them through ad-libs. We have this down so well that we can have the audience onstage and still keep control of the show.”
In order to handle the added element of onstage audience members, the cast – which Edmiston refers to as having an “impressive level of professionalism” – has learned to rely on its shared chemistry and improvisational techniques to make sure the show runs smoothly.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for things to be made topical or relevant to people,” Lukas Kruegle, a freshman computer engineering major playing Chip Tolentino, said. “Everyone knows exactly what they need to do. It’s been extremely cooperative since the beginning of rehearsals.”
The production features an ensemble cast with many songs involving intricate harmonies and vocals, leading to a close and confident cast. Megan Maloney, senior theatre and communication studies combined major playing Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, describes the cast as working in “perfect harmony.”
“I have never been in a show where the cast is such a family – we really are a single unit,” Maloney said. “Since it’s such an ensemble piece, it’s hard not having it be that way.”
The production, which opened on March 22 and is playing at NU’s Studio Theatre until April 3, aims to give audiences a comedic look back at everyone’s shared adolescent awkwardness.
“Not only is it hysterical, but these characters that we’ve built aren’t just cartoonish stereotypes,” Kruegle said. “We have found a very real way of making these relatable characters that you can identify with and think back to a time when you’ve dealt with the same issues.”
Photo courtesy Grant Terzakis