To a casual viewer who relies on autocorrect to spell “license” and “queue” correctly, spelling bees are normally an opportunity to learn the meaning and spelling of words like “syzygy” and become the coolest person at the party.
But at the Whidbey Playhouse, the stage of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” felt more like the Hunger Games arena, with prepubescent children struggling in a battle to the last letter while simultaneously fighting their inner demons — such as self-doubt, loneliness and even an appendage with a life of its own.
This February, community members are invited to laugh, learn and reflect with this unique musical experience where the audience is part of the show. Directed by Matt Montoya in his debut at the role, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will have audience members tapping their feet to the sound of catchy tunes performed by a live band and a cast of skilled singers.
“It’s the kind of content that I think really will open up the Playhouse to a wider audience and get more community participation,” said Wesley Moran, a Whidbey News-Times staff member who plays Douglas Panch, the vice-principal and contest judge on a special diet to fix his temper issues.
The humor is silly and sometime a tad mean, but appropriate for families. Rain Davidson, who plays moderator Rona Lisa Peretti, said her role was fun but challenging, as she plays a character who is sarcastic, passive-aggressive and fake.
“My whole passion is lifting kids up,” said Davidson, who is a middle school choir teacher and quite the soprano. “It does not come easily to me to be unkind.”
Many lines in the show are improvised, especially Moran’s and Davidson’s, as cast members will choose people from the audience to participate in the competition — following no script.
Karina Andrew, former Whidbey News-Times reporter, plays Marcy Park, a burnt-out child prodigy with an impressive hair flip. Andrew, who eats musicals for breakfast, believes the show is an exciting opportunity for people to “dip their toes” into being on stage.
Marcy has an intolerance for annoying people — a.k.a. anyone else but herself.
“If you took a shot every time I roll my eyes on stage, you’d be hammered by the end of the show,” Andrew said, following with a disclaimer that she does not condone drinking in public.
But beneath Marcy’s ever-annoyed face, there is a deeply unhappy girl. And she isn’t the only one.
Olive Ostrovsky, played by Laurie Russell, feels neglected by her parents; William Barfee, played by Andrew Pierzchala, can only breathe from one nostril and has no friends.
Though many of them are old enough to have gone through puberty twice, the cast oozes with the awkwardness and quirkiness of typical 12-year-olds.
Andrew Huggins, who plays various characters including boy scout Chip Tolentino, believes the audience will see themselves or someone they knew in middle school in each character.
To Dany Stahl, who plays the fidgety and wholesome Leaf Coneybear, the show encourages people to be themselves unapologetically.
Whether it’s for a date or some family time, the show is a shining gem among the Playhouse’s many productions.