The students who take part in the Putnam County Spelling Bee don’t always know how to spell words like "capybara" (a type of rodent), and "chimerical" (an adjective that means imaginary). But the 15 UMass Boston students taking part in the Performing Arts Department’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are very familiar with the word "first" — as in the first musical UMass Boston students have performed in 15 years.
Spelling Bee, which features music and lyrics by William Paine and a Tony-Award winning book by Rachel Sheinkin, is a hilarious tale of six quirky, yet charming adolescent outsiders hoping for a chance to win the Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is the one place where they can stand out and fit in at the same time.
The show opens Tuesday, April 17 at 6 p.m. in the McCormack Theatre.
“I was so happy to hear they would be doing a musical this spring because most of my experience in performing is through musicals,” says Brendan Paine, a junior theatre arts major from Quincy. “I think it'll be a great way to bring in more people to see our shows that may not have known about the Performing Arts Department.”
It’s not just the 15 student actors who are participating in the show. About 45 students are involved behind the scenes, working on props, costumes, publicity, house management, set construction, and lighting.
Assistant Professor of Performing Arts Carrie Ann Quinn is directing and choreographing the production. Now in her fourth year at UMass Boston, Quinn has been working to heighten the acting program and the professionalism of the productions on campus. Quinn is collaborating with UMass Boston’s first tenure-stream professor in design, Anthony Phelps, who is serving as the technical director and scenic designer for the production.
“I felt that the students and department were finally ready for this challenge now that we are a stronger department, and with the popularity of [television shows] Glee and Smash, the timing seemed to be right,” Quinn says.
And when it came to selecting the musical, the choice was easy.
“We wanted to do something fun and happy, that would focus on characters,” Quinn says.
Quinn says that this particular production really highlights the diversity of talents of the cast, which is made up of theatre arts, music, English, psychology, and education majors that range from freshmen to graduate students. The musical number “Magic Foot,” is typically done as what Quinn calls a “hat and cane number,” but because the actor playing William Barfée (Rutherford “Junior” Cius) is a hip hop dancer, the UMass Boston version is a hip hop solo.
“We wanted to update it a bit more,” Quinn says.
Paine plays Leaf Coneybear, who marches to the beat of his own drum. (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell on television show Modern Family, originated the role of Leaf on Broadway.)
“Since he is home schooled, he doesn't have any friends and is very socially awkward, so participating at the Spelling Bee is a very big deal for him. He is very innocent and honest, and I try to bring those qualities about him out in my performance,” Paine says.
There is also an audience participation component to the show, creating an extra challenge for the actors, who get to show off their improvisational skills. When the actors rehearse, Quinn says they have to remember that “someone else is going to be next to them.”
Quinn says if the show is a success, she hopes to be able to put up a musical every other year.
“We’ve put our spin on it, for sure,” she says about Spelling Bee.
Opening night is also Student Appreciation Night. For $10, students will receive pizza and a ticket to the show. For all other performances, tickets are $10 for students and $20 for general admission. All performances will take place in the McCormack Theatre, which is on the second floor of McCormack Hall. Patrons can buy tickets at the door or make a reservation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
• April 17 at 6 p.m.: Student Appreciation Night: Pizza & a Show ($10 ticket/pizza)
• April 18 at 6 p.m.
• April 19 at 7 p.m.
• April 20 at 8 p.m. (Extended T shuttle service available until 11 p.m.)
• April 21 at 2 p.m.
• April 21 at 8 p.m. (Extended T shuttle service available until 11 p.m.)
• April 22 at 2 p.m.
The Performing Arts Department’s dance recital, “Diversity in Motion,” will take place May 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. in the McCormack Theatre. Tickets are $5 for students and $5 for general admission.