In school I was always a bit of a word nerd. I got excited whenever the teacher announced a spelling test, and when I watch, with rapt attention, any televised spelling competition, I am always a little bit jealous of the kid competitors — having never been part of a “bee” myself.
I guess that’s why the idea of a musical comedy all about a spelling bee is so appealing to me.
Especially because this one, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, lets audience members — maybe even those who have bee dreams of their own — get involved in the show. Before each show of the touring musical, making its way across Canada and currently playing here in Ottawa, “head spelling wrangler” Beth Reisman recruits four audience members to come on stage and join the cast as they dance, sing, and — naturally — spell their way through the show.
So what do Reisman and her team of wranglers seek when cruising through the pre-show crowd? “We look for a nice variety of ages, gender, all shapes and sizes. Just anyone who will be good on stage, and have some fun being a part of the show,” she says.
“Some people are surprised when we ask them if they want to be on stage. A lot of people run away from us, but of course others are thrilled to be up there with the actors.”
The premise of the show is inviting and fun, for both the orthographically advanced, and the phonetically phobic. The action is set inside a school gym, where an eclectic and socially challenged group of adolescents square off with one another, and contend with an equally eccentric pair of judges.
There are many laughs throughout, thanks to a witty script written by Rachel Sheinkin and lively music by William Finn. But as Reisman points out, it’s also a lot of fun watching how the audience members do on stage, and how the actors play with them.
“Because you never really know what someone is going to say or do on the stage, it keeps it unpredictable and fresh. If an audience speller keeps getting the words right, it could go on and on,” Reisman says.
She has been touring with the show for several months across North America, and says she thinks local audience spellers will be as competitive as they are anywhere else. “I am sure the audience there will have fun with it. This is the kind of show that seems to bring fun wherever it goes.”
But if you’re hoping to get on stage, you might want to study the dictionary before you go.