When Missouri Western State University’s theater department goes back to school, it means it.
In “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a Tony Award-winning musical-comedy, the cast is getting an education — at least at a middle-school level. The musical will be performed in the Potter Hall Theatre at Missouri Western at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14 and Saturday, Oct. 15, and Thursday, Oct. 20 through Saturday 22, with a matinee at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16.
While most Missouri Western productions require casts to portray characters who are sometimes decades beyond their age range, “Spelling Bee” has them reverting back to a more innocent time.
Taking place in Putnam County, New York, “Spelling Bee” centers around six school-age contestants who are either aiming to win the big prize or fade into the background of the competition.
Almost like a “Breakfast Club” assembling of characters, each participant has a background with textures, usually mixing growing pains with adolescent awkwardness. Olive Ostrovsky (Kelsey Garber) is a kid with loving, but busy, parents who considers a dictionary one of her close friends. William Morris Barfée (Brandt Shields) is an quirky kid who narrowly missed winning the previous spelling bee due to a peanut allergy. Marcy Park (Jillian Lysaght) is the kid who’s good at everything but is both physically and mentally tired from being pushed so hard.
There are also the home-schooled misfit Leaf Coneybear (Joseph Kellogg), the politically active youngster Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Raven Reed), the returning champion Chip Tolentino (Erik Burns-Sprung), the troubled Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Antonio Daniels-Braziel) and the jubilant moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Abby Sexton).
Having never seen the Tony Award-winning musical before, director Tee Quillin says he went into the production with fresh eyes and ears, ready to see how the cast would interpret the material. He was surprised that despite the show being centered around children, there is enough mature content that parents should take notice before taking their kids to the production.
“There’s a way that this innocence is portrayed that’s really clever because it’s the innocence of children through the eyes of adults. That was the thing that kind of drew me into it,” he says. “The show has a lot of heart, it really, really does.”
Working with the cast, Quillin says it was imperative for them to bring a child-like vulnerability to their characters, where emotions like embarrassment and humility go out of the window.
“You look for ‘Are they going to be willing to play and step out of their comfort zone a little bit? Are they willing to make a fool of themselves the way that kids do? Are they willing to act completely and totally on impulse without concern what other people are saying?’” Quillin says.
The cast has been able to tap into that juvenile spirit well, without losing the heart of the story.
“Casting is 90-percent the success or failure of a show. If you cast a show right, it doesn’t direct itself, but it certainly does make everything a whole lot easier,” Quillin says.
Being an ensemble piece without a central figure, Quillin says the musical requires the cast members to be patient as they wait for their joke or song and have their moment to shine.
“There’s not a clear-cut protagonist/antagonist. It’s not really structured that way. It’s more of a character study type of show and that being the case, you have to an ensemble of actors who are willing to do that, have that level of generosity,” he says.They also will share some of the stage with the audience, as members are selected out of the crowd to participate in the spelling bee.
“If they spell the word right, they get to stay in. If they don’t, then they don’t,” Quillin says.
The participation gives the cast a chance to improvise and loosen up before diving deeper into the musical’s story.
“It creates some really fun and random moments for our actors too, which we’ve been having fun playing around with and experimenting,” Quillin says.
With “Putnam County Spelling Bee” kicking off Missouri Western’s 2016-17 theater season, it will mix veterans with some new talent.
“One of the great things that came from auditions is we have a great batch of incoming freshmen and transfer students that auditioned and seemingly came out of nowhere ... When you finally get them into one room and see all the talent you have, it always comes as a shock,” he says.
Tickets for the show are $14 for adults, $12 for Missouri Western faculty and staff, $8 for students and free for Missouri Western students with valid ID. They may be purchased at the door or in advance at the Potter Hall box office, 816-271-4452, or online at mwsutix.com. The play contains mature content.