The Tony-award winning show is all about the characters, a group of overachieving pre-teens who gather to compete in a rural spelling bee final at Putnam Valley Middle School. There’s Marcy, an All-American hockey player who speaks six languages and sleeps three hours per night. Olive, a newcomer to competitive spelling, has a father who can’t be at the bee because he’s working late. Don’t forget William Barfée, who has only one working nostril and a touchy personality. That’s just for starters.
Photo by Colette Sauls
“The fun thing about the show is that the characters are so unique,” said Scott Viets, Sierra Rep’s artistic director, who directs the production. “They each have different personalities, different quirks. That’s what drives the show.”
Spelling Bee is based on an improvisational play created by Rebecca Feldman and was first performed by a comedy troupe she founded, called The Farm. It morphed into its current version, and the 2005 Broadway production enjoyed box-office success and was nominated for six Tony Awards.
“It’s had a lot of popularity, both on Broadway and regionally,” Viets said. “Audiences will love it. It’s youthful, and it’s silly and fun.”
A unique aspect of the show: four audience members will be invited on stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the six young characters. This makes for a different experience every night.
“That’s going to make it all the more enjoyable,” Viets said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. A big part of this show is spontaneity.”
Peter Leibold VI, who plays Leaf Coneybear, a homeschooled speller, agrees. He’s Sierra Rep’s resident lighting designer and master electrician and was in a production while studying theater at the University of California, Irvine. His character comes from a large family of hippies who make their own clothes. He spells words while in a trance. When Sierra Rep announced Spelling Bee as part of its 2014 season, he jumped at the chance to audition.
“I just love the show,” he said. “I love the characters, I love the audience participation, I love the music.”
The music, written by William Finn (Falsettos), includes titles like “My Friend, the Dictionary,” “I’m Not that Smart” and “I Speak Six Languages.” The show is recommended for ages 13 and older.
Returning to Sierra Rep to play the speller Olive is Elizabeth McMonagle, who was an audience favorite in 2013 as Percy in Spitfire Grill.
“It’s one of my favorite shows and Olive is one of my favorite characters,” she said. “She’s got so much optimism and she’s so goofy. I feel like she’s that weird kid from school who has such great spirit and nothing knocks her down.”
Audience members should be ready to laugh, she said.
“It’s such an amazing show in the sense that it’s non-stop jokes. You’re able to identify with at least one of the spellers, if not all of them. You’ll come away thinking the spellers are your friends.”The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs Oct. 24-Nov. 23 at East Sonora, located at 13891 Mono Way. Most Thursday and Friday performances begin at 7 p.m., Saturday evening shows begin at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m. General admission ranges from $26 to $32. The show is rated PG-13. For more information, a detailed content advisory or reservations, call Sierra Rep’s box office at 209-532-3120 or visit Sierra Rep at www.sierrarep.org.