The combination of extended silences and intense competition can make spelling bees dramatic, but Leavenworth's River City Community Players are also hoping to draw on the contests' more humorous aspects in a new musical comedy.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" opens Friday at the Hollywood Theater. M.B. Hurst, a native of Wichita, Kan., and now of Kansas City, Mo., is directing the production, her first for the company. Having acted in other communities before family brought her to the area, Hurst said she was drawn to the caliber of the RCCP.
"Leavenworth has a really great reputation as far as being a good community theater with a great space and support as far as the board goes," she said.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," as the title would suggest, centers on a countywide spelling bee and its contestants.
Hurst said she remembers participating in her own schoolwide bee and being eliminated on the word "flob," and added that the spelling side of the show is pretty similar to her experience, with some crucial differences.
"There's probably more singing in this one," she joked.
But Hurst said the script and characters take the sometimes eccentric qualities of real-life champion spellers and amplify them.
She said this musical is unique in its format — there are nine cast members, six of which are spellers. Each night, she said three additional spellers will be scouted in the lobby before each show from audience members to be brought on stage for the show. These impromptu cast members will be given their own words to spell and opportunities to ask for its definition, its use in a sentence and its language of origin.
Branson Bliss, who will play pronouncer Vice Principal Douglas Panch in the show, said the addition of the audience makes for an interesting on-stage dynamic.
"What makes this incredibly interesting and fun is the fact that you can't really rehearse and practice them like that," he said. "So you really just have to roll with the punches and see what happens and hopefully it's funny every night."
Raphael Tate, who plays spelling savant Leaf Coneybear, said the audience participation also draws the audience in.
"It brings more community aspect in," he said. "Some shows you go to see and you just watch the story unfold. But in this, it's like you're part of it more because someone from among you is up there. And not knowing what the heck is going on."
Around those audience volunteers is a colorful cast of elementary- and middle-school age characters played mostly by adults, each with their own unique story and quirks. Tate's Coneybear falls into a trance to spell and is dressed in outlandish clothing, including a sock puppet, cape and helmet. But he said he doesn't think Leaf is the most outrageous character in the production.
Page 2 of 2 - "This really isn't a show that has a lead," he said. "Obviously, there are people who stay in the bee longer because someone has to win, but every single character has their own story and they bring something special to the show."
The opening night performance of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday at the Leavenworth Performing Arts Center, 500 Delaware St. in Leavenworth. Performances are also scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday and March 1, 2, 8 and 9. There will be a matinee performance at 2 p.m. March 3. Tickets are available for $10 for adults, $5 for those younger than 12 and $8 for those older than 62 years old and for groups of 10 or more, by calling 913-651-0027. For more information, visit www.rccplv.com.