For the Springfield Community Players, each and every production is the culmination of months of planning, organization, and collaboration.
And that was certainly the vibe on Friday when the Springfield Community Players opened their production of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s musical comedy “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
“This has been a process,” said Springfield Community Players president John MacDonald. “I thought it would be good to bring a Broadway style play to the Claremont Opera House as part of our 100th anniversary celebration in 2019.”
The show involves a spelling bee set in fictional and geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley Middle School. It is a spelling bee involving quirky students that is run by equally idiosyncratic adults that together makes for a humorous and enjoyable evening. The 2005 Broadway production that ran about three years was nominated for six Tony Awards and won two, including Best Book.
Unfortunately, the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic caused the cancelation of that season.
Now they have brought a “scaled-down” version back to Springfield.
“[I am] glad it came to fruition. It’s such a great show. I love laughter, and it will make people laugh.”
“[The show is a] good way to come back from COVID,” said Director Sara Vitale.
Vitale herself, who has life-long experience as an actor and director, is coming back to the Springfield Community Players, having last appeared on stage there in “The Savanah Sipping Society” in 2017. This is her first time working with this particular musical.
“Each character has a ‘break out’ moment where you really get to see into their heads,” Vitale said. “The psychology of it really appeals to me. This play should be done more. It’s really deep, universal, about identity, who we are as opposed to who we pretend to be, who we are expected to be, and who we actually end up becoming.”
The script calls for four audience members to be invited on stage to compete against six regular cast members. Such things are always a challenge in any theater.
“[We had] multiple rehearsals with volunteers for practice,” Vitale said. “Whether we get a 7-year-old or a 70-year-old, we have practiced with all ages.”
She also said she likes shows that “break the fourth wall.” She promised, though, that all the audience volunteers would gat a “crash course” in what to do before they go on. The night I was there, opening night, One of the four was Charlotte Carmondy. Their parts are cleverly worked into the script. She was eliminated before she completed spelling her word.
“I really can spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Most of the actors play middle schoolers. They were all older. But the script is well written, and one easily believes them that age since they all depict their characters so well. Each of the cast, the two adults running the spelling bee as well, really had their characters down.
We have really talented people,” Vitale said. “It’s not often you have a cast where there is no weak link.”
I certainly agree with her assessment.
They all tell a very poignant story about the vulnerability and sometimes pain of growing up, the joyful and sad things of life, and losing and winning. The youngest cast member is 16-year-old Springfield High School student Alivia Emerson. She said she is also playing the youngest character, a character who, “has a speech impediment, is a little bit liberal, and likes to stand for her rights.”
“This is my favorite play I’ve ever done. People are so positive,” Emerson said. “It’s great to come and find everyone so happy. It’s a lot of fun.”
That attitude certainly came across from everyone on stage.
The production is well directed, Vitale capturing the subtly beneath the humor that keeps us laughing throughout. She achieves good use of the space and has the actors sometimes interacting with the audience. It is played on a simple set which really captures the starkness of a middle school auditorium, metal folding chairs, plainly draped walls, and an impressive banner proclaiming the spelling bee that dominates the stage.
Carrie Jewell’s choreography was excellent as was the musical direction of Liz Carey.
“The score is fun yet challenging,” said Band Director and keyboard player Parker Eastman. “When you think it’s going one way, it goes another. As soon as you get used to the drums, you hear tympany.”
It is joyful and exciting to know that post COVID community theater is coming back.
“For the first show back in an actual building, I am so excited,” said Sally Regentine, who played a former winner who comes back to run the spelling bee as an adult.
The Springfield Community Players may have only had a two-production season this year. But last year they only had one virtual production, the comedy “Check Please” which let them carry on their impressive record of at least one production a year for over 100 years. The prospects are good for the group’s 102nd season next year. Their Studio Theater on South Street will now be dark for the winter, and we will all have to anxiously await their announcement of what will be coming next Spring.
It will continue on Friday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 13, at 2 pm. in their Studio Theater located at 165 South St. in Springfield. Just to add to the fun and in the spirit of the comedy, and as a thank you to the community, the Nov. 13. Matinee will be Spelling Bee Taco Fiesta Night with all ticket purchasers getting a voucher for a free taco and beverage from the SunnySide Taqueria food truck that will be outside the theater.
Information and reservations for next week’s shows can be accessed at springfieldcommunityplayers.org or by calling the Ticket Box Office at 866-967-8167.