Filichia Features: At the Very First Annual North Dakota Spelling Bee

Filichia Features: At the Very First Annual North Dakota Spelling Bee

By Peter Filichia on October 21, 2016

I was dazzled by Adam Pankow’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

In West Fargo, North Dakota, no less.

Pankow, a teacher at Sheyenne High School, stressed the spellers’ enthusiasm and not their eccentricity. He had respect for these characters who savored an educational and intellectual exercise.

So Jaarel Hansen’s William Barfee didn’t sloppily have his shirt tucked out and one sock higher than the other. Pankow limited his problems to the script’s sinus condition and peanut allergy; those were enough for insensitive classmates to mock him. Hansen showed that being beaten down so much made him condescending and contemptuous. If he weren’t required to listen carefully to spelling administrators Rona Lisa Peretti and Douglas Panch, he’d have headphones over his ears as a way of saying “World, don’t bother me -- because you’re beneath me.”

Ian Olson as Leaf Coneybear shyly sang “I’m Not That Smart” as if he were embarrassedly exposing a secret instead of obstreperously. Pankow also had him barely use his alter-ego puppet.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Sheyenne High School (Photo by Michael Benedict).

Mauli Sand’s Marcy was content with her overachiever status; she acted confident but never advanced into obnoxiousness. Braden Miller excelled at creating three distinct characters: Mitch, the surly parolee; one of Logan’s gay fathers; and Olive’s staunch dad.

Benjamin Salazar’s Chip Tolentino grabbed the microphone with Mick Jagger assurance – until he saw an alluring girl in the audience, covered his groin and sang “Chip’s Lament.”

The song mentions “erection” five times.

Said Pankow, “The creators knew that ‘erection’ might unnerve some communities, so they gave ‘distraction’ as an alternate. We have a nine-member community standards board; administrators, teachers, parents and at-large community members put a stamp of approval on shows. They didn’t necessarily take offense to ‘erection’ -- it’s even a sixth- grade health-class vocabulary word -- but using ‘distraction’ seemed wise to defuse any audience member’s possible objection,” Pankow continued staunchly. “We didn’t dilute the subtext.”

Spelling Bee offers a comment on parents who will do anything for their child to succeed. Hannah France’s Logaine Schwartzandgrubenierre expressed outrage at her father’s outright cheating. “There are options in the script for her rant, too,” noted Pankow.

Did Logan purposely throw the Bee? We do suspect that one contestant will graciously step aside for another, but no show concluded with a greater fake-out.

“And there are two Olive epilogues,” Pankow informed. “One says she reenacted the bee for her father on their ride home and years later became a loving, attentive parent who hosted a radio talk show where she annually interviewed the Spelling Bee’s runner-up. Epilogue Two has Olive returning home to an empty house, well-worn dictionary and uncertain future -- but with a conviction that she can strongly face all three. This second option was (bookwriter Rachel) Sheinkin’s original that (songwriter William) Finn found depressing, but we used it because we thought it painted Olive’s future as one with infinite possibilities.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Sheyenne High School (Photo by Michael Benedict).

Pankow served the adults well. When Morgan Gast as Rona told of spelling “syzygy” – which made her Putnam’s champion years ago -- she said it with the demeanor of a superstar singing Her Biggest Hit. Tristan Duenow’s Panch detailed the residue of an unhappy past without overdoing it.

And then there were those audience members who volunteered to come on stage and join the spellers for a spell. What fun seeing the ringers get into the spirit! They were soon swaying to music and moving their feet in rhythm. Along with the cast, they waved goodbye to the actual characters who’d been eliminated. Choreographer Amanda Dauwen (who also adeptly played Olive Ostrovsky) shrewdly had the ringers lock hands with cast members, join in a circle and spin. There couldn’t be a simpler dance that would get rank amateurs to look as if they truly belonged.

Those still in the audience related to the ringers and applauded their every success. After a contestant had been given a lollapalooza that would make him a lollapa-loser, everyone related to his semi-indignant “Is that a word?” It took us back to school when teachers gave us words that we knew would result in a clicking sound from a clicker.

Concluded Pankow, “The show’s a terrific exercise in improvisational theatre where everyone -- musicians and technicians, too -- must roll with the punches. Though the Bee’s outcome won’t change, directors can craft this musical to their wants and needs. Time and experimentation will show what works best. We had lots of fun. No wonder that Spelling Bee ranked third on Dramatics Magazine’s recent list of most frequently produced musicals in American high schools.”

Read more Filichia Features. 

You may e-mail Peter at pfilichia@aol.com. Check out his weekly column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com. His book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.