The cast of Ryan High School’s staging of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee can list a few challenges right off the bat.
First, there are the long, mysterious words they field as they play the socially awkward youths who want to take home the county spelling trophy. Secondly, there’s embodying the socially awkward youths who are years younger than the actors themselves.
The high school actors are staging an alternate version of the popular and usually R-rated musical about a group of kids who want to win — even if it means humiliating a fellow speller.
The original Broadway musical got fairly adult, dealing with the slings and arrows of raging hormones with frank humor. This staging follows the same spellers through a slightly softened story.
There’s Olive Ostrovsky, who hopes she can win the bee and her busy dad’s attention. She might even lure her much-missed mom back from India if she wins. William Barfee is a buffoonish boy with permanent hay fever and a “magic foot” that he uses to write his contest words on the floor before spelling them for the judges. Marcy Park is a prodigious girl who has skipped two grades, speaks six languages and relies on her Catholicism to help her achieve.
Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre is the youngest contender in the county bee’s history. She might sound babyish with her speech impediment, but she’s an old soul with a heart for politics and undying love for her two dads. Chip Toletino swaggers into the bee ready to take his second consecutive championship at the county bee.
And no one bets much on home-school boy Leaf Coneybear, who wears a cape, falls into a trance when spelling and — if the heat is really on — gets help from a little finger puppet.
Only a few adults preside over the mess of nerves, bravado and suspense: Rona Lisa Peretti, a real estate agent and a Putnam County spelling champ herself. Vice Principal Douglas Panch, a long-suffering authority figure, has drawn the black bean as returning judge of the bee. Mitch Mahoney is an ex-convict. He’s acting as the official comfort counselor for the bee — to work off some community service hours.
The Ryan High actors agreed that although the musical pokes a lot of fun at eggheads who love to spell correctly, it really, really loves spelling nerds.
“It’s definitely genuine,” said junior William James, who plays Leaf Coneybear. “The spellers all have their issues, but the play’s heart is with them.”
“I would say that actual spelling bee people would find it funny,” said junior Conner Belt, who disguises a velvety baritone in William Barfee’s nasal squawk.
Putnam County uses real spelling bee contest words, and the cast members seemed a little nervous about some of their onstage rounds.
“Oh my gosh,” said sophomore Mae Reiland, who plays Olive. “I’m really scared that I’m going to mess up when I’m supposed to spell a word right.”
Junior Daniel Magden, who plays Vice Principal Panch, protested his peers’ pain.
“You think you have it hard,” he said. “I have to pronounce these words.”
Aside from spelling, the performers had to do exercises and drills to reconnect with their inner children, they said. Junior Kirby Minnick, who plays Logainne, said she has something of a revelation when her 6-year-old neighbor came over and got the teen to play.
“She was all, ‘And now we’re going to hop into this!’ and I stopped her,” Minnick said. “I told her, ‘But you can’t hop into that.’ She looked at me and went, ‘You can if you use your imagination!’
“It got me thinking about how you can sort of forget your imagination in a way. So I’ve tried to use that with Logainne.”
Drake Hughes, a sophomore who plays Chip, was hesitant to divulge his homework on character development.
“I know this is going to sound really kind of weird, but I live in a neighborhood with a bunch of kids who are athletes,” he said. “They go outside and play football and things like that, and I just kind of sit in my room and watch them.”
To the razzing of his castmates, Hughes said his observations helped him remember how children play. They might not have the coordination they’ll claim in middle and high school, but they play with energy and conviction.
“I try to bring that into what I’m doing on stage,” Hughes said.
Guest artist Jordan Love, a professional actor, led some of the games and exercises for the cast.
“The hardest part about playing a child is that the affects of society, the need for maturity, [mean that] you have to stifle your creative impulses. You have to lay out all these stops that you have to think about things differently and in being creative,” Love said.
“I was working in a class with an actor who was telling a story about taking his son to see Star Wars. … After they saw it, he said his son came downstairs in the bathrobe with the lightsaber, and his son said, ‘Dad, I’m a Jedi.’ He said that, in that moment, his son really believed he was a Jedi.
“That’s something that’s important for actors — believing in that moment that they are the character they are playing. It’s crucial to being an actor, but it’s hard to do.”
Magden played the contrarian again.
“I play an adult,” he said. “Being an adult sucks because I have the highest, squeakiest voice of everyone in here.”
Senior Andrea Figarella agreed with Magden, at least a little. As Marcy Park, Figarella plays a child who is mature for her age.
“It’s funny,” she said. “I still sleep with a stuffed animal. I wear onesies. I still watch Disney movies. You’re playing a kid, but you’re playing a kid with a stick up her butt. I had to watch Toddlers & Tiaras to get this right.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
What: Ryan High School Theatre Arts Department presents the musical comedy, with book by Rebecca Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Jan. 16-18 and Jan. 23-25
Where: Ryan High School auditorium, 5101 E. McKinney St.
Details: Tickets cost $10. The department is performing an all-ages version of the musical.
The cast of Ryan High School’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee:
Marcy Park — Andrea Figarella, senior
Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre — Kirby Minnick, junior
Leaf Coneybear — William James, junior
Rona Lisa Peretti — Julia Durbin, junior
Mitch Mahoney — Jordan Love, guest artist
Chip Toletino — Drake Hughes, sophomore
Carl Grubenierre — Bobby Wallace, sophomore
Vice Principal Douglas Panch — Daniel Magden, junior
Olive Ostrovsky — Mae Reiland, sophomore
William Barfee — Conner Belt, junior
Dan Schwartz — Josh Sodersterom, junior
Miss Coneybear — Damara Williams, sophomore
Jesus — Drew Stone, sophomore
Chorus — junior Ashley Jones; sophomores Kendall Reis and Chelsea Gandee; freshmen Brad Hilton, Cheyenne Burton, Zach Palmer and Aaron Bates