Over the past five years, winning words at the National Spelling Bee have been knaidel, guetapens, cymotrichous, stromuhr and Laodicean. Keep those in mind when Ford’s Theatre presents the quirky Tony-winning musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, as actual audience members will be invited on stage to compete.
Directed by Peter Flynn, the musical follows six awkward adolescents and their proctors, all working through a daunting and hilarious spelling championship quest.
“Whether you’re in eighth grade or age 48, there is something in Spelling Bee that will remind you who you are or who you once were,” Flynn says. “While delighting audiences with a heap of amusing music and colorful characters, Spelling Bee has a magical way of making audiences rediscover that there’s something worth rooting for in all of us.”
Although this is his first time directing the show, Flynn does have a little history with it. He served as artistic director for the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y. which produced the show in 2010. Flynn and his wife are also good friends with some of the original Broadway cast, so he had seen the musical several times throughout its development stages and on the Great White Way.
“I just loved how original it was, how spontaneous and fresh, plus the amount of authenticity it takes from the actors playing the roles; they can’t get away with faking anything because the audience is up on stage with you,” he says. “I was astounded at how truthful it was while maintaining how funny it was.”
Unlike the Broadway production, which had some audience members sitting on grade-school matts and surrounding the action of the ’bee, Ford’s Theatre will be used more as a large spelling bee atmosphere.
“Instead of creating a faux gymnasium, Ford’s will act as the stage for what is essentially a whole scholastic auditorium,” Flynn says. “We have done a lot to blend the line from where the actual architecture of Ford’s leaves off and our set continues, so it feels like we are in that world. Hopefully, the set will look very much like it has been a part of Ford’s for a very long time.”
Finding actors who could sell themselves as children and who could portray the spelling savants in this unique world was of extreme importance to the show’s success.
“For me it starts in the casting process to find people who are genuine, quick-witted and fun,” Flynn says. “Who can be brave and audacious in their spontaneity and their choices, while at the same time maintaining the core of what’s needed on stage.”
The cast for Spelling Bee: Carolyn Agan, Matthew A. Anderson, Felicia Curry, Kristen Garaffo, Vincent Kempski, Kevin McAllister, Vishal Vaidya, Nickolas Vaughan, Rachel Zampelli, Maggie Donnelly and Clark Young.
All 11 actors are from the D.C.-area, and Flynn has worked with many of these Helen Hayes Award nominees before, some during Ford’s record-breaking production of 1776 and some he directed at the Kennedy Center’s Barrio Grrrl a few years back.
“I’m very happy to be working with them all and this trades on the community,” he says. “It’s great to have that in tact already. To the person, everyone knew at least two people very well and I think that goes a long way in building a very truthful experience.”
Rehearsals have not only been about staging the show and learning the choreography, but some time has been spent on making the community stronger through ensemble exercises and physical theatrical work. That’s important, Flynn says, and everyone is having a great time working together and exploring who they all are.
Audience members are invited up to the stage to take part in the spelling bee and the more words they get correct, the longer they can be part of the action. It not only helps to reinvent the show each night, but further expands the community.
“People possibly sitting right next to you might be chosen to see who the best speller in the room is each night,” Flynn says. “That sense of immediacy and tension is enthralling.”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
March 14 – May 17, 2014
511 Tenth Street, N.W.
Mondays thru Saturdays
“It’s the one we all think we can be a part of. While I look forward to Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, maybe I don’t look forward to soccer’s World Cup as much. The spelling bee is a great leveling ground,” he says. “All of us at some point feel we could at least compete before getting thrown out—any body type, any age range, any economical background, we’re all welcome, and anyone can win.”
In addition to 1776, Flynn also previously directed the February 2009 Grand Reopening Celebration of Ford’s Theatre featuring James Earl Jones, Audra McDonald, Richard Thomas, Ben Vereen and others. It’s been two years since Flynn has directed here and he’s thrilled to be coming back.
“They from start to finish provide for great theater and what I mean by that is they choose projects that are best experienced in the same room as the audience,” he says. “Right from the get-go, the programing they choose is vital and essentially offered in a central setting so actors can find that artistic balance with the audience.”