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“Spelling Bee” creates buzz

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Audience members (center) become part of the action. Photo by Dylan Huebner/ dylan.huebner@marquette.edu.

Anyone else remember what getting put on the spot in spelling classes felt like back in the day?

N-E-R-V-E-W-R-A-C-K-I-N-G.

Tonight, when “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” opens at the Helfaer Theatre, you can relive that moment all over again — vicariously or otherwise.

Such a statement is not just hyperbole. This innovative musical comedy, which premiered on Broadway in 2005, features an uncommon element in staged plays — audience participation.

Every night, as the audience enters the theater, stagehands pick out random strangers to join the audience on stage. For this reason, the play is never the same, because the actors must adapt to how the participants perform.

“There’s a lot of improv,” said College of Communication junior Allie Bonesho, who plays speller Marcy Park. “It’ll be like a return to your middle school years.”

Though most don’t really want to revisit those awkward years of voice-cracking and pimple-popping, this musical makes light of such situations through wit and familiarity.

“Come ready to laugh and have fun,” Bonesho said.

This “blast from the past” musical pulls the audience into the story by making sure everything stays in character – even the set.

“It’s like you’re actually at a spelling bee, right from the curtain speech,” Bonesho said. “We’re basically pulling a gymnasium out of a middle school and putting it on stage.”

The story opens with an introduction to the audience, instructing them to silence their phones and not give clues to the spellers — all to maintain the illusion of attending a genuine spelling bee.

After that, the six main characters burst into song, individually revealing their personalities through their lyrics and body language. As the show progresses, we learn how each deals with the pressure of the bee and their personal growth after its conclusion.

Each role is representative of a general middle school stereotype, from Bonesho, who plays the class overachiever, to College of Communication senior Matt Wickey, who plays the geeky, socially maladroit, William Barfee.

“He’s the nerdy loner, a private person who hasn’t had the proper exposure to a social atmosphere,” Wickey said. “I saw this play in high school, and thought, ‘I would love to have this role.’ I hope I’ll do it justice.”

While the show generally carries a less serious tone, it does touch on some hard topics. For example, Maria Tsikalas, a sophomore in the College of Communication, plays Olive Ostrovsky, who deals with some weighty issues over the course of the bee.

“She is the most fragile character,” Tsikalas said. “She’s the girl whose parents aren’t there. Even though she knows they aren’t coming, she still saves them each a seat at the spelling bee.”

Bonesho said her character Marcy has the opposite problem: perfection-driven parenting.

“Marcy is supposed to be good at everything, and can’t cry or show much emotion,” Bonesho said. “She’s the only one who doesn’t want to win. Her role is a challenge, a break from [myself].”

Wickey, who served on the selection committee for this season’s shows, said “Putnam” was a show the committee definitely wanted on the docket for this year.

“It was our first choice,” Wickey said. “I thought, ‘We need to find a way to do this show and see if we can get the rights to it.’ It’s such a fun show, it can’t not be a hit with the audience.”

Auditions were held in May during exam week, and roles were cast soon afterward so that the cast could begin memorizing their lines over the summer.

For the cast, developing the show has been an arduous process, but well worth it.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed working on a show more,” Tsikalas said. “I love it.”

The show can also be a great way for you to reminisce with your family, since it overlaps with Family Weekend, Oct. 1 to 3. It might even convince them you have a taste for culture outside of the bar scene.

All and all, “Putnam” looks to spell success for both its actors and its audience — S-U-C-C-E-S-S.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will be playing at the Helfaer Theatre Sept. 23 to 26 and Sept. 29 to Oct. 3. Evening shows start at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees start at 2:30 p.m. and a special family performance Oct. 2 starts at 1 p.m. Tickets are $10 for students, $16 for seniors, alumni and employees, and $20 for adults.

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