Hilarity and excitement aren’t the qualities imagined of a spelling bee, yet that is exactly what audiences will find with Tyler Junior College’s newest musical.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has been performed in vastly different ways over the years, thanks to its improv reliant script. Director Becky Faulds-Howard happily takes on the task of this irreverent mish-mash of a musical and interactive improv comedy.
“On the surface, it’s all these kids at their local spelling bee … but when you get into the bee you realize the story is really about what’s going on in the personal lives of these kids,” Mrs. Faulds-Howard said. “Why are they here? Are they being pushed, are they having to prove something, are they having to be that perfect genius child that does everything well?”
It takes an especially strong cast to pull off the wildly different personalities on stage, all while antagonizing audience members and performing choreographed songs.
In addition to the main cast, each show three audience members will be pulled on stage to help compete in the spelling bee.
This is where the cast truly begins to shine. Holly Tarkon, playing the unflappably perfect Marcy, splits her time between maintaining a faade and coming to the realization that she may not want to win. Her interactions with the equally stressed-out whiz-kid Logainne, played by Bailey Mayo, are one of the highlights of the show. Faulds-Howard encouraged the cast to dig deep into their characters. The small character interactions will leave the audience straining to hear the catty remarks the two shoot back and forth, while Tarkon throws more shade than a gazebo at anyone who even slightly ruffles her.
“The thing about all the kids in this show is they’re so relatable to a lot people’s childhoods,” Ms. Tarkon said. “The weird quirks and relatabilities and insecurities are what really makes even the weird oddballs still appealing to the audience members.”
Unfortunately for the students in the spelling bee, the adults running the show may be even worse equipped to handle life.
“My character, Rona, is the moderator of the spelling bee, she’s kind of sadistic,” Rhema Gruenwald said. “She really likes to see people lose because it makes her feel better about winning.”
Meanwhile, the possibly violent assistant principal Mr. Panch, played by Trey Treadway, attempts to woo Rona, much to her chagrin. Mr. Panch was forced to take a long hiatus from the bee after an incident with a student.
“I come back after five years and he’s just emotionally dead on the inside,” Treadway said. “He doesn’t care about the kids and he doesn’t hold back because he just really doesn’t care about anything except Rona. He’s got kind of a school girl crush on her.”
Meanwhile, the confused audience members, dragged on stage, are thrust into the middle of the drama with every character vying for their attention.
“My favorite part is having audience members up there with us and getting to talk to them,” Ms. Tarkon said. “The few that are chosen to go up on stage are the ones who really get the full experience of the show because they get to hear us do a little improv and nitpick. We get to mess with them, it’s so much fun.”
While the moderators put on the kid gloves for the audience members, the spellers hold nothing back. Anyone lucky enough to be pulled on stage is in for a wild ride they won’t soon forget.
Faulds-Howard is bringing a delightfully unique experience to the Jean Brown Theatre at TJC. She said positive reception of the play may open the possibility for a fall musical to join their slate each year.
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ opens Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m. each night, with a final show at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22.
Theatre TJC is partnering with The Literacy Council of Tyler to raise awareness before and after each performance.
For more information, call 903-510-2212