‘Spelling Bee,’ a Hilarious Homespun Comedy

Spelling Bee poster as seen on the Idyllwild Arts campus

OK, I hate to admit it, but going to a local spelling bee sounded pretty boring–like watching Nascar. But I had to go because it was assigned by the local newspaper. This all happened about three years ago.

At the Idyllwild School, the room was hot, sweaty and full of excited children. The teacher and the prompter read the rules out loud, and did everything by the book. The Idyllwild School Spelling Bee seemed to last forever because no one was misspelling any words.

Then the words got harder. They were ones that I didn’t even know, let alone could spell. I blushed, thinking I couldn’t have made it past the first round in an elementary school spelling bee. Thank goodness for Spell Checker.

As it turned out, two girls progressed to the next round that was to be held in Hemet about three weeks later. Of course, I had to write the follow-up story, and drove down the hill really early on a Saturday.

But this Spelling Bee had a different feel. It was held in a huge auditorium, with hundreds of excited kids running around. All of them were dressed up in their best clothes and acting on their best behavior. All the parents were taking pictures, and giving last-minute instructions. There were dozens of schools from all over the district.

Some of the spellers were serious-looking eight-year-olds walking around with video spell checkers, instead of video games. Others were hefting backpacks full of dictionaries, no doubt. I got the feeling that if a student didn’t do well at this Spelling Bee, it would alter his or her career.

“Yes, it’s too bad that Brittney never made it to medical school,” a mom from Hemet would confess years later. “She didn’t make it past the third round in the Hemet Regional Spelling Bee, and no decent medical school would take her. She should have studied harder.”

When I reported that one of the Idyllwild spellers got eliminated in the first round, and cried, I never heard the end of it.

“You shouldn’t have mentioned that part in the article,” Idyllwild residents would stop and tell me. “That’s so traumatic for that little girl, and have to be embarassed so publicly in the paper like that!”

I reported exactly the way it happened.  It showed how emotionally invested these young students were in the event. They didn’t want to lose. They didn’t want to disappoint their parents. They wanted to go to Harvard some day.

In short, the Idyllwild Spelling Bee and the Hemet Regional Spelling Bee were homespun drama at its best. Imagine what it would have been like if one of those Idyllwild School students made it to the Riverside County Spelling Bee! The drama, the terror, the tears! Well, now’s your chance!

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the final play of the year by the Idyllwild Arts Theater Department, will be held this weekend at the IAF Theater.

The story is set in the Putnam Valley Middle School, a fictional location. It was based on a book by Rachel Sheinkin, and centers around six quirky adolescents who compete in the spelling bee.

“Boring” is not a word that can be associated with this show. It’s a comedy, with dancing and singing. The 2005 Broadway production, directed by James Lapine, was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two, including “Best Book.”

In fact, a couple of weeks ago, the assistant choreographer for that Broadway show came to Idyllwild Arts and helped out the theater students for a couple of days.

Preston, one of the spellers, sings about his erection

“It was great getting help from a professional,” said Preston, who plays “Chip,” one of the six spellers, who is also a Boy Scout.

In the show, he misspells the word, “tittup,” which means “to behave or move in a lively or restless manner, such as an impatient horse,” and not part of the female anatomy.

“Preston misspells ‘tittup,’ and gets an erection,” teased Shane. “Then he has to sing about it.”

“It’s true,” Preston admitted, pushing up his horn-rimmed glasses. “After all, I’m an adolescent. And these things happen.”

Shane had to spell a couple of German-sounding words.

“I don’t know what they mean, I just have to know how to spell them,” he said.

The one who has to know about the correct spelling of all the words is Devon, who plays the prompter named “Panch.”

“Devon’s got the voice down to a tee,” adds Riley, who worked in the costume shop. “It’s kind of a NPR-sounding whisper. ‘And your next word is …'”

Ruby, who plays “Olive,” has a vested interest in the spelling bee. She believes it’s the key to her father’s heart.

“Her mother ran away to an Indian ashram,” Shane said.

“But she’s not sad, really,” said Ruby. “She just realizes the limitations of some adults. But she tries to get her father’s attention by doing well in the spelling bee.”

Riley said that working in the costume shop for this show was fun.

“We had to pick clothes that a 12-year-0ld would wear,” he said. “No, correction. What their parents would make them wear.”

Joey plays "Leaf," a speller who wears a cape

He said they lined up all the skirts in a row, and picked the ones that would look well together.

“But Joey’s costume was the best,” Riley said.

Joey plays “Leaf,” an eccentric kid who wears a neon green shirt, pink pants–and a cape.

“We try not to laugh at Joey, but it’s impossible,” Ruby said.

Besides watching these goofy characters, there’s more surprises in store, but you’ll have to come see the show!

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” will be held this Friday and Saturday, May 21 and 22, at 7:30 p.m. and at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 23. All shows are free and open to the public. The IAF Theater is located in the Bowman building on campus.

For more information, visit www.idyllwildarts.org or call (951) 659-2171, ext. 2200.

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One Comment to “‘Spelling Bee,’ a Hilarious Homespun Comedy”

  1. Never, never, never, never give up