A cast of colorful characters brings 'Spelling Bee' to life

A cast of colorful characters brings 'Spelling Bee' to life
Photo courtesy of Genarro Seno.

By Christina Ausley | Staff Reporter 

It's easy to imagine the scene of a typical elementary or middle school spelling bee: A lone spotlight shines on the smartest kid in the class. She quickly notices she's not alone as hundreds of expectant eyes look on as she spells the word 'narcolepsy.' The judges chant their next challenging word from the lexicon, and the crowd, rather than going wild, pleasantly claps to students' success. 

This week audiences have the opportunity to engage in a different kind of spelling bee: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which is being presented by UA Theatre & Dance. Showing tonight through Sunday at the Allen Bales theater, the cast and crew are preparing for an already sold-out opening night and the rest of the week's performances. 

“In a space like this a sold-out show happens often, but never so early,” said Emma Schenkenberger, a third-year arts management graduate student and the show’s marketing manager. “So we can already tell a lot of people are really excited about coming to see this show, considering it’s so well-known.”

Set in a middle school gymnasium as children compete in a comedic spelling bee, many UA actors step into a familiar environment and role in reliving their childhood. Sophomore musical theatre major Matt Kelley, however, will still experience something new.

“This is my first musical here at UA so it’s an entirely new ballgame,” said Kelley, who will perform the role of Chip Tolentino. “My character has a very demanding singing role so I’m constantly singing and hitting these crazy notes, so its been a process, but I’ve loved every minute of it and I cannot wait to see how the audience reacts and responds to the show.”

Alongside many of his fellow actors, he's portraying some of the tumultuous years of a developing adolescent. 

“It’s funny because my character won the spelling bee the year before, and I actually won my county spelling bee as a fifth grader,” Kelley said. “Chip is also a very nervous kid and I was constantly nervous about what people would think about me, and I was a perfectionist just like he is, so it’s definitely very therapeutic to live out your childhood again on stage, and it’s so easy to relate to.” 

While junior musical theatre major Dylan Guy Davis will also step into an uncomfortably familiar role as William Morris Barfée, he believes more than just the cast and crew will connect with the characters of Putnam County’s 25th Annual Spelling Bee.

“The way these characters are written you will see yourself in all of them, and you’ll find someone you identify with,” Davis said. “You will see yourself as when you were 11 and think something like, ‘Oh, I showed off to get people to like me,’ or, ‘I acted super confident to try and make friends,’ and we’re all putting up these masks to show people things that we’re not, and really this show is kind of seeing the mask and then taking a peek behind it to who you really are.”

It’s for this hidden reflection of self within the performance actors like Davis and Kelley have fallen in love with their roles and the show in all its comedy and sneaky sentimentality. 

“The main reason why I love this show so much is because it’s life, it’s messy, things don’t always work out but we keep moving forward,” Davis said. “The fact that I can relive this role I played as a child and actually make a difference in my actions this time is absolutely everything to me.”

Similarly, Kelley looks forward to presenting a lesson performed by children, yet remarkably applicable to college students.

“I think college students tend to forget that they’re still growing up in college too,” Kelley said. “So this show is all about growing up and learning life lessons, and those don’t just necessarily have to apply to a bunch of middle schoolers.”

Director Tom Alsip believes his role has become more of an editor, as the cast has naturally stepped back into the shoes of their childhood.

“This particular show is a lot of fun, and the students already have a tremendous connection to it,” Alsip said. “They inherently connected to and understood their characters, so it was really just a joy watching them collaborate. They came out with great ideas and really built these characters themselves.”

For tickets to "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," visit theatre.ua.edu. 

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