Spring Musical Spells Out Ups and Downs of Adolescence
April 14, 2016
The School of Performing Arts at Virginia Tech will conclude its 2015-16 Mainstage Theatre season with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Performances are April 28–30 at 7:30 p.m. and May 1 at 2 p.m. in the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre in the Moss Arts Center.
A one-act musical comedy, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” centers on an eclectic group of six mid-pubescents competing at the county spelling bee. The championship opportunity happens to be the chance of a tween lifetime. The tweens spell their way through a series of words (some potentially made-up) hoping to never hear the soul-crushing, pout-inducing “ding” of the bell that signals a spelling mistake. Their linguistic competitive experience includes overreaching or inattentive parents and eccentric spelling bee officials.
“Spelling Bee celebrates how unique, complicated, quirky, and intelligent kids truly are,” said director Susanna Rinehart. “It celebrates kids’ passions and their fears and insecurities … many of which are inadvertently created by adults. The show is so subversively wise and funny about kids, teachers, parents, all of us. Kids know and feel and think about things in a far more complex way than most popular culture ever gives them credit for.”
Winner of two Tony Awards in 2005, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” offers a comedic look at the plight of youth in the millennium — an era filled with childhood competitiveness, overscheduled lifestyles, and unrealistic expectations. The musical comedy was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, music and lyrics by William Finn, and book by Rachel Sheinkin.
Rinehart also directed the popular musical “Spring Awakening” during the 2013–2014 School of Performing Arts Mainstage season. Her current cast includes, in her words, “freshmen through seniors, math majors and theatre majors, students I’ve known throughout their VT careers, and students I had never met until they stepped foot in the audition room. What they ignite in each other is a privilege to watch.”
Rinehart feels lucky. She is thrilled to be working on the school’s latest production with music director Richard Masters. “His musical leadership of the band and the ensemble is superb,” Rinehart said. Powerfully revealing songs such as “I Speak Six Languages” and “I’m Not That Smart” pull theatregoers into the competition as spectators.
Tom Fenninger, of Vienna, Virginia, a senior theatre performance and business management dual major, plays the roles of Vice Principal Douglas Panch and Carl Grubenniere, two of the adults at the Spelling Bee. Fenninger believes “creating live theatre is an act of service.” Theatre “allows people to tap into feelings and emotions that they might otherwise not experience on a daily basis. Theatre wouldn’t exist without an audience, or community, and I believe that we help bring that community closer together,” he said.
In the spirit of community building, the School of Performing Arts is hosting a food drive to support Micah’s Backpack, a local organization working to address food insecurity for youth in nine area schools. Theatregoers are invited to join cast in alleviating weekend hunger for local children by bringing 100 percent juice boxes with them to the show.
Juice box contributions to Micah’s Backpack will be received in the lobby before the show, and a cappella groups Mixed Emotions and Sensations will perform.
Written by Susan Sanders