For the overachievers who compete there – William Barfee, with his clogged nostril; or Marcy Park, the prodigy from Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows – “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the fall production of the Studio Theatre at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, is a high-pressure P-A-L-A-E-S-T-R-A: a place to learn combat, described by one writer as “‛Survivor’ for nerds.”
The stakes could not be higher. The contestants, saddled with adolescence, absent parents and schedules that allow just three hours of sleep, have been cast out, and they know it. Most see a “Putnam” win as their only hope.
The show, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, is a comedy that doesn’t dumb down.
“It’s part of a very rare breed of musicals that somehow manage to be hugely entertaining but also incredibly smart and sophisticated,” said David Vegh, the show’s director and a lecturer in theatre at Penn State Behrend. “It’s a slam-dunk for anyone who loves musical theater, but it will have just as much appeal to fans of ‘The Colbert Report.’ That, to me, is a very rare thing.”
John Champagne, associate professor of English at Penn State Behrend, is serving as musical director for the show, which opens Nov. 1. "The music from the show is quite witty, drawing on a variety of traditions and genres," he said. "There's ragtime, blues, modernist harmonies and rhythms, a girl-group number and more traditional Broadway fare."
Performances of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" begin at 8 p.m. Nov. 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9, and at 2 p.m. Nov. 3 and Nov. 10. Tickets are on sale now at the Student Activities Desk in the Reed Union Building; they cost $7, or $5 for Penn State Behrend students, staff and faculty members, and for guests younger than 18.
(“Putnam County” includes content equivalent to a PG-13 rating. Some language and situations might be offensive to certain audiences.)
The production’s student cast includes Adam Rossi and Kristina Peszel, of Erie; Chikodili Agwuna, of Columbia, Md.; Mary Beth Cartier, of Pittsburgh; Rayna Ganabathi, of Clarion; Orion Anderson, of Mercer; John Vallone, of DuBois; Lillie Gabreski, of Jamestown, N.Y.; and Jason Liu, of Chengdu, China.
At each performance, four members of the audience are invited to join the cast. They are given their own words to spell, forcing the rest of the cast to ad-lib. That adds unexpected comic moments.