CHS thespians to cast ‘spell’ on audiences

If it had to happen to any production, this is the one. With the opening of the newly renovated Don Fruechte Theatre for Performing Arts delayed until March 22, the Claremont High School Theatre Department’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” opens tonight in the Multipurpose Room at Sycamore Elementary School.

It’s a fitting setting for a show based on the vicissitudes of a group of misfit spelling bee contestants.

“We’re very fortunate. ‘Medea’ wouldn’t have worked here,” said CHS Theatre Director Krista Elhai, referring to her students’ upcoming production of the classic Greek play.

Ms. Elhai and her protégés are also lucky their rendition of the Tony Award-winning musical has some help in the form of choreographer DJ Gray. A CHS Theatre alumna, Ms. Gray served as associate choreographer for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” from its workshop period through its acclaimed off-Broadway and Broadway runs.

Ms. Gray knows what works and—as the old grade school report card comment goes—this show works well with others, both critics and audiences. It follows 6 hyper-achieving, offbeat kids struggling to fit in and to spell like champs, “overseen by grown-ups who barely managed to escape childhood themselves.”

The musical is an amalgam of catchy songs and cringe-worthy childhood moments, spiked with laugh-out-loud humor. Think of it as a “Chorus Line” for the elementary school set.

There’s Chip Tolentino, whose reign as the current bee champ is threatened by the sudden eruption of puberty, triggered by the presence of an opponent’s pretty sister. There’s Leaf Coneybear, a spacey kid who is labeled dumb by his family but can spell nearly anything when he snaps into one of his inexplicable trances. There’s Olive Ostrovsky, a lonely kid with a workaholic father and a mother in an Indian ashram, who finds solace in her one true friend: the dictionary. There’s the lisping spelling prodigy, Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, who is prodded toward success by 2 overbearing gay dads.

There’s Marcy Park, who is fitting the stereotype of the over-achieving Asian student at the cost of happiness. A master of 6 languages, several instruments and 2 sports, Marcy attends a Catholic school called “Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows,” sleeps only 3 hours a night, isn’t allowed to cry and is fraying at her seams. There’s William Barfée, who is beset by respiratory ailments and the world’s insistence on pronouncing his last name as “barfy,” and whose spelling acumen is aided by a mnemonic device involving a “magic foot.” 

Caution: Watching “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will spur flashbacks to that awkward period when you hovered on the cusp of adolescence. And former spelling bee contestants may feel a moment of vicarious rage as the characters experience a timeless example of life’s iniquity, with one student being quizzed on the word Lysergic Acid Diethylamide and another asked to spell cow.

As Ms. Gray watched the students’ dress rehearsal on the Sycamore Elementary stage this past Monday, it was a full-circle experience. She attended Sycamore herself and also danced there as a young ballet student.

“I performed on that stage,” she marveled.

Since the 2005 Broadway premiere of “Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Ms. Gray has choreographed the one-act musical comedy for numerous regional productions.

“I’ve fallen in love with the heart of the show,” she said. “Every time I work with it, there is something new I haven’t seen before.”

This the first time Ms. Gray has staged the musical with a cast of teens rather than adults.

“They are much closer in age to the characters. They bring a natural youth to their roles that is so glorious to work with,” she said.

Scotty Jacobson, a 17-year-old CHS theatre veteran who will head for Pace University this fall, said that playing Chip has been a blast.

“I kind of had to channel myself a couple years ago,” he said. “I can relate to him, because he’s very passionate about what he does”

Given that he graduates soon, Scotty will spend very little time in the new CHS theatre, which is all but ready to go. Less than 10 seats out of an original 266 are available for purchase through the Theater Boosters’ Save a Seat sponsorship campaign, which has helped bring professional-grade theater seats into CHS thespians’ new digs. He’s not bitter, though.

“I’m super thrilled,” he said. “Even though I don’t get to spend as much time in the new theater as some other students, it’s kind of like a senior gift. It makes it even more special.”

As a sophomore, 16-year-old Emmalyn Spruce is one of the CHS theatre students who will get to take full advantage of the state-of-the-art new theater. In this production, she plays Rona Lisa Peretti, the top realtor in the county and a returning moderator. As a former Putnam County bee champ herself, she takes the business of spelling pretty seriously. Emmalyn brings a soaring soprano and an air of earnestness to the role.

“I sort of imagine her as a former pageant queen,” Emmalyn said.

The teen actress said she loves the way the kids, and even the adults, are all misfits in the show.

“Everyone has someone they can identify with. They go through struggles kids go through every day,” Emmalyn noted. “I also like the enthusiasm and color of the show—it’s very exciting.”

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will be held at Sycamore Elementary School, 225 W. 8th St. in Claremont. Admission is $12 at the door. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. on the following dates: March 8, 9, 14, 15 and 16.

For more information, call 624-9053, ext. 30463 or visit

—Sarah Torribio


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