This past weekend I was invited to Avenue Theater Company’s adaptation of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNUM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. Eager to escape the heat and bask in the artificial breeze of Louis Bluver Theater’s sweet, sweet AC I graciously accepted, and was unexpectedly blown away by this hilarious production.
A note in the program from Director Kelly Wilson claims SPELLING BEE is a celebration of “the strength to live with authenticity.” I can attest that her off-the-wall cast was indeed an authentic salute to the misfit superstars of adolescent obscurity—you know, NERDS. However, as is made abundantly clear in SPELLING BEE, nerd is no longer a dirty word.
The quirky musical chronicles the rise and fall of several aspiring spelling champs and the few adults, charged with moderating their academic play pen.
The cast of too-smart-for-their-own-good spellers was led by Justin Caiazzo who played the obnoxiously nerdy William Morris Barfée. In the land of dorks, Barfée reigned supreme. His nasally condescension was a real joy to behold. How he managed to make such an annoying character so endearing and lovable is a mystery to me and a testament to his strength as a performer.
Brandon Rothenberg plays Vice Principal Panch, a charmingly absurd character that would’ve been at home in an episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. The sentences he provided for the spellers in an effort to help them better grasp the etymology of a word were the comedic highlights of the show. Kudos, V.P. Panch!
Feeling altogether out-of-the-loop with regards to this mysterious sleeper gem and Avenue Theater Company I caught up with choreographer and assistant director Chloe Sierka after the show for an impromptu interview. [The Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, 302 S Hicks Street] August 11-14, 2016; avenuetheater.org.
Mike Kelly: What was it like working with this group of weirdos (I use that term lovingly)?
Chloe Sierka: Well, I think anytime you are working in theater, you’re working with a group of weirdos—though typically they are trying to act normal. We were looking to gather a group who were ok with being weird in front of an audience.
In terms of production staff, this was my second time around with Avenue Theatre Company so the ideas flowed easily and really allowed us to add depth to what could have been a very one dimensional show.
I found myself encouraging the cast by saying, “try it . . . I’ll tell ya when you look stupid,” echoing the sentiment of directors I’ve worked under myself. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better cast and crew.
MK: Most characters in the show played multiple roles on stage. How many roles did you have to play behind the scenes?
CS: At first I was worried about this show since there is little to “choreograph.” Thankfully, Kelly, the show’s director, allowed me to take on some more scenes that were blocking/directing oriented.
Basically, I would find holes and fill them. As we got closer and closer to opening I continued under that theme helping paint canvases that covered our back wall, although I must also give a shout out to Wesley Barnes here for all her work on that and a thousand other things. Even little things like handing out programs—I ’m always willing to do what I can.
MK: Smaller theater companies often seem to run on love of theater and sheer willpower. Any hurdles to overcome during pre-production?
CS: We pick “easy to produce” shows for a reason. We want to spend the majority of our time worrying about the acting, singing, and dancing, since ultimately that’s what matters. Since this show had straightforward costumes and props we were able to get the most out of those things for free with the help of the cast and crew.
So many cast and pit members outside of production and tech staff donated ample amounts of their time. Ultimately, things that could have been hurdles were avoided. We also had a successful fundraising campaign that definitely helped keep things rolling.
MK: I love when a show catches me off guard and really obliterates my expectations. This group had me in stitches all night. What about this production caught you off guard?
CS: Honestly, I knew nothing about this show. When I searched for clips on YouTube of community productions I was not impressed. So when I started to see these incredible actors bring it to life, I can say I was caught off guard. Once the show hit a certain pace, I started challenging them to make different choices and it was like watching something grow. I must have seen this show 20 times and continued to laugh at the same jokes because these guys could always find a way to make the delivery interesting.
MK: Any R-rated behind the scenes stuff you want to tell us about? Our readers are hungry for low-brow dirt.
CS: I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you there. There was a definite sense of comradery amongst the cast and crew. There was pretty open communication and respect which I’ve learned are key to any successful production.
Not sure if this counts but I had a stomach virus through tech and the show, so that’s just gross!
MK: Gross, indeed. Thanks for your time Miss. Sierka.
Avenue Theater Company’s production of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNUM COUNTY SPELLING BEE played at the The Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake (302 S Hicks Street) on August 11 through 14, 2016.