What does it take to become the champion of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”?
Studio Players audiences will find out this weekend when the musical conceived by Rebecca Feldman opens at the Carriage House theater.
A rollicking comedy about a group of eccentric middle schoolers competing for spelling glory, the show features high-energy musical and dance numbers, lots of silliness, fun with words and, most importantly, the element of surprise.
Not even the cast, largely comprised of area high schoolers, know everything that will happen each night. Why? Because this show loves to play with improv.
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“It started as an improv show originally, then morphed into this musical theater piece,” Jessica Greene, vocal director and producer of the show, says about the play’s improvisational roots.
Our younger actors are really getting the chance to learn about theater outside of their high school, and we like to provide those opportunities.
Jessica Greene, vocal director and producer
When Rachel Sheinkin wrote the book and William Finn composed the music and lyrics, they made sure to retain some of the show’s conceptual improv elements.
“There are four audience members of the show that will be called up as spellers,” Greene says. “If the audience member spells it correctly, they remain on the stage. If they spell it incorrectly, we go into a music cue.”
From directly involving the audience to casting teenagers in roles that are usually for adults who pretend to be teens, the show is a prime example of how Studio Players succeeds in engaging broad cross-sections of the community.
Greene, whose term as Studio board president recently ended, says the decision to cast high schoolers was intended to provide opportunities for young talent to get experience outside of school theater programs.
“Studio Players has tried to stay true to our commitment to community involvement,” Greene says. “Our younger actors are really getting the chance to learn about theater outside of their high school, and we like to provide those opportunities.”
One of those young actors is Je’shaun Jackson, who plays awkward and not-very-well-liked young competitor William Barfee.
Je’shaun, who will be a senior at East Jessamine High School, has performed in school shows since elementary school but has never had the chance to act in a community production until now.
“The process at first was a little scary because everything was moving so fast, and you had a whole lot of other people that were way more experienced than I am,” he says.
One thing he learned during rehearsal was a deeper approach to character development, thanks to director Eric Seale’s process.
“We had a character-development meeting that was like two or three hours,” he says. “We sat down, broke the show up into all these different parts, and we looked at it from all these different angles. All these ideas were brought up, ideas I wouldn’t have thought of.”
Je’shaun says the meeting helped him understand and shape his character, and he will use Seale’s process when he works on future shows.
“His whole process was just eye-opening to me,” he says. “It has me bringing new things to new shows. I am gonna personally sit down and break down the show so I can develop my character the way I did for this.”
But it’s not just teenagers and a few people selected from the audience who get to have all the fun. Brett Burton, who celebrates his 46th birthday on opening night, is in the show.
Burton, who teaches choir at West Jessamine High School, has a long list of theatrical experiences to his credit, mostly in the Madisonville area. Since moving to Central Kentucky a few years ago, he has yet to appear on stage.
Playing vice principal Doug Panch, Burton gets to interact with the teens as peers rather than as an authority figure, and he says he has enjoyed the process.
“Knowing that I can actually let loose a little bit and get to know everyone more on a friendly level, on a theatrical level, instead of being the teacher, is quite liberating,” Burton says. It’s just been fun getting to cut up and do something that I thoroughly enjoy and doing it with others that enjoy it as much as I do.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.