‘Putnam Spelling Bee’ on Andrews Hall stage in Sonoma

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'Spelling Bee' on stage

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs March 10-20 in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St. Thursday-Saturday shows at 7:30 p.m., Sunday shows at 2 p.m.

Tickets can be purchased by calling 1-800-838-3006 or by visiting www.sonomaartslive.org.

“We’re at about eight minutes!”

So announces production manager Rick Love, moving briskly from the seating area of Andrews Hall toward the back stage, where 15 amped-up teen actors are waiting to launch their first full-dress rehearsal of the giddy, sweet and seriously funny cult-hit musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Part satire and part celebration, the Tony-winning show combines the competition of “The Hunger Games” with the wacky up-with-misfits comedy of “Revenge of the Nerds” – but with words like “crepuscule” and “syzygy” thrown in for good measure.

On stage, a convincingly festive, bunting-adorned set depicts a school gymnasium all set up for a spelling competition. As director Libby Oberlin, the education director of Sonoma Arts Live’s Teens ‘N Training program, enters the room and takes her seat, ensemble member Tessa Hope Morgan quietly runs through the words of the big show-opening number. Morgan will be playing Rona Lisa Peretti, a former champion of the annual Putnam County spelling bee, now the leading realtor in Putnam County, and the competition’s somewhat overwhelmed hostess and moderator.

Upon hearing Love’s eight-minute warning, Morgan takes one last look around, takes an enormous deep breath, and disappears behind the curtain to join the rest of the cast.

There are few coming-of-age rituals as consistently pulse-pounding and flat-out terrifying as that of the middle school spelling bee, though putting on a play at the community center might rank close.

Of course, as members of Teens ‘N Training, these particular actors certainly know their way around a stage. But it is safe to say they’ve never tackled anything quite like “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Written by Rachel Sheinkin and Jay Reiss, with lyrics and music by William Finn (“Falsettos”), the musical debuted on Broadway in 2005, winning two Tony Awards, including the prize for best book of a musical, instantly becoming one of the most produced plays in the country. Somewhat defiant of convention, the play calls for adult actors to play all of the wacky, off-the-wall middle school spelling bee competitors, who occasionally morph into the characters of various parents and community members in a series of flashbacks and stress-induced hallucinations.

The Teens ‘N Training production, opening this weekend, marks the first time the show has been produced in Sonoma, and the first time in the area it’s been cast with teenagers in the roles of the kids.

“They’re doing such a nice job with this, and it’s not an easy show,” says Sherrill Peterson, musical director, taking her place in the front row. “They’ve had a good time with it and, because this is such a challenging piece, I think they’ve learned a lot from it.”

In the TNT production, many of the roles have been altered to fit the current group of performers. Most notably, a number of the main spelling bee competitors have been changed from boys to girls, which is why the combative oddball William Barfee is now Willimina Barfee, played by Molly Bingham as an insecure but hilariously sarcastic Goth-girl. The character of Leaf ConeyBear is likewise changed. Now played by Liv Cole, Leaf is adorably odd, used to failing and accustomed to being reminded of that. In fact, she only came in third in her recent school spelling bee, which should have disqualified her for the county competition, but because the first place winner was having her bat mitzvah, and the second place winner had to attend that bat mitzvah, Leaf got the last minute call, and there she is, tie-dye shirted, lucky finger puppet and all.

'Spelling Bee' on stage

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs March 10-20 in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St. Thursday-Saturday shows at 7:30 p.m., Sunday shows at 2 p.m.

Tickets can be purchased by calling 1-800-838-3006 or by visiting www.sonomaartslive.org.

Those are just two of many colorfully crafted characters who face off against each other to prove their worth by spelling some of the hardest words in the English language, and occasionally some easy ones. Though “cow” turns out to be trickier than it sounds for one unlucky speller, leading to a massive meltdown all-cast song and dance number called “Pandemonium.”

“Some of the gender changes work effortlessly because we’re using alternate lyrics where it makes sense to do that,” says Peterson, showing the official alternative score. “It works really well, which is good because we just ended up with a lot of girls who wanted to be in this show.”

Shouts production manager Love: “All right, that’s ‘places’!”

It’s time to start the rehearsal.

“We hope the community comes out to see what these students have accomplished,” says Peterson, taking her seat. “The performers have worked so hard to recreate these wild characters in totally new ways. They’ve done such a good job. And now they’re almost ready opening night. It’s really very exciting.”

Based on the vibe running through the Andrews Hall rehearsal, exciting is exactly the right word — no matter how you spell it.

Meet the cast
Molly Bingham: Willimina Barfee
Lachlan Brummé: Moe Smadda/Leaf’s Dad
Fiona Cole: Juanita Lopez/Leaf’s Sister
Liv Cole : Leaf Coneybear
Kamryn Conway: Olive Ostrovsky
Jenna Ebert: Marcy Park
Oliver French: J.C Cross/Jesus Christ
Sandra Hagstrom: Rory Waters
Nica Love: Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere
Tessa Hope Morgan: Rona Lisa Perretti / Olive’s Mom
Devin Muller: Vice Principal Douglas Panch
Eliana Proctor: Bluebell Bumpkin/Dana Mom
Victoria Rinehart: Chip Tolentino
Katie Sunia: Tish Mahoney
Coral Utnehmer: Dilly Munch/Carla Mom
Brooke Zellers: Mandy Mendez/Leaf’s Mom

Libby Oberlin: Director
Jaime Love: Producer
Rick Love: Production Manager
Moira McGovern: Stage Manager and Tech Director
Debbie Cohn Bowen: Assistant Stage Manager
Sherrill Peterson: Musical Director
Mikey Snider: Choreographer
Tony Ginesi: Set Design
Skylar Evans: Lighting Design
Steve Hagstrom: Sound
Sydney Moore: Spot Operator

Email David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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