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Cultural Park Presents The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Tom Hall

Cultural Park Theater is performing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee this Thursday through Sunday. The musical comedy is popular fare here in Southwest Florida. Florida Repertory Theatre produced the show in 2017 and Melody Lane Performing Arts Center staged the show a year ago January during the height of the pandemic. But what sets Cultural Park’s iteration apart from these earlier shows is that the pre-pubescent kids who are competing in the Bee are played by adults and, with a single exception, by an all-female cast.

“This production is unique in that most of the characters are played by the wrong gender,” Director Tyler Young explains. “Typically there’s a split cast of female or male, but in this production we have a lot of males played by females - some that are playing the character as a male and others that playing them in a gender neutral way, which kind of changes the dynamic in the different aspects of acting that each performer has to take into account.”

Cross-gender casting has a long tradition - at least when it comes to men playing women. Male actors played female characters in ancient Greece and Rome, in Elizabethan England and in Mandarin China, as well. Women playing men, by contrast, is a more recent development, but it’s becoming more common and not just in situations where more girls than boys respond to a casting call. Cross-gender casting can shake things up not only for the actor, but for audiences as well. And that’s the case here, where the women playing boys give their characters a fresh new slant.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the case of Cassie Sampson, who plays Leaf Coneybear, a youngster who backs into the Bee when the kids who took first and second place in his school can’t make it to the competition because of family obligations. Rather than celebrate his inclusion in the Bee, Coneybear’s family tells him that not only doesn’t he belong in the competition, he’s not that smart! It’s a mental tape that plays in his head on a never-ending loop like really bad elevator music - and that he’ll carry into adulthood, where it will haunt him in conscious and unconscious ways every day for the rest of his life. Sampson’s sensitive, vulnerable portrayal endears Coneybear to the audience in a way that would not land nearly as well if the character were played by a young male actor, as traditionally cast. (Plus, Sampson gets to wear the show’s most colorful and imaginative costume.)

Critics have characterized Putnam County Spelling Bee as a satire of Scripps and other spelling competitions. It’s not. Rather, it’s a sobering indictment of the ways in which parents screw up their kids psychologically - and psychically - by what we tell them - and what we fail to say.

In the latter vein, the character of Olive Ostrovsky personifies the musical’s moral and message. Like the other spellers, Olive is deeply damaged. Theater veteran Dana Alvarez, who plays Olive, explains why.

“So Olive Ostrovsky is a unique and awkward word-loving girl who’s got absentee parents. Her mother is in India on a spiritual quest and her father is always working.”

I wrote you a letter How I found the spelling bee such fun

Mama, Mama, Mama But you didn’t react

And you never asked me If I’d join you in the Bombay sun

Mama, Mama, Mama I had quietly packed

When are you returning? I know we agreed

Tell me what you’re learning Ma, I have, Oh God, this need

I think Dad is angry, Ma And I do not know what to do

Mama, Mama, Mama Shanti Shanti and ohm

I think he takes out on me What he wants to take out on you

Caught in the middle of her parents’ estrangement, she hungers insatiably for their affection and attention. She yearns to hear three simple words, I love you, which she expresses in the musical’s most evocative number. Alvarez directed the musical for Melody Lane Performing Arts Center a year ago, but singing the “I Love You Song” on stage has been on her bucket list since she first heard the musical’s soundtrack in college.

“The majority of the show has very fast-paced and upbeat funny songs, and the ‘I Love You Song’ kind of comes out of nowhere to smack people in the face with feelings. So it has Olive spelling this word chimerical, which means highly unrealistic, wildly fanciful. So the song is her dreaming about her parents basically saying ‘I love you’ to her dozens of times because it’s something she doesn’t hear.”

The other spellers’ backstories are as touching as they are disturbing, but the show counterbalances this gravitas with a plethora of jokes, comedic situations and lighthearted moments. Some of the latter come at the expense of the audience. Four audience members, to be exact, as Stephanie Sabelhaus explains.

“In this show we have, um, four audience volunteers who are actually in the Bee.”

Sabelhaus plays Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who has unresolved anger management issues. Back in the Bee after a concomitant five year absence, Panch sits at the moderators’ table with local real estate guru Rona Lisa Peretti, brilliantly played by Cassy Terwilliger. Panch is the one who gives each contestant the word they are to spell, along with the word’s definition and the cockamamie sentence in which the word can be used.

“I get to choose which words [the volunteers] get, and Rona gets to choose what she’s going to say about them based on what they’re wearing or whatever. So we get to have a lot of fun with those volunteers. And I kinda get to choose when they get kicked out so, [laughing] it’s fun to be able to ad lib with the show because normally you have to stick with the script and be strict with it. It’s fun to be able to ad lib with these volunteers and be able to interact with them.”

In addition to having some fun at the volunteers’ expense, the show’s other highlights include a Rockette’s inspired kickline, a minute-and-a-half slow motion sequence and a song-and-dance number that is sheer “Pandemonium.”

I knew that word God damnit!

It is such a calamity Where should we begin?

The best spellers Don't necessarily win

They don't win They don't win They don't win

Life is Pandemonium Life is Pandemonium

Life is random and unfair Life is Pandemonium

Yes it is Oh yes it is

So whether your word is lugubrious, phylactery, syzygy or cow, make plans to see this show before its “Last Goodbye.”

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

This Spotlight on the Arts feature is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.