W illiam Barfee uses his “magic foot” to tap out words on the floor before he spells them aloud.
Leaf Coneybear wears a cape, carries a stuffed animal, and somehow finds himself spelling the names of one South American rodent after another.
Don’t forget Marcy Park, who is so good at academics, so good at sports and so sick of winning.
You’ll meet them all, along with the rest of their competition, if you attend “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” brought to the stage of the J.J. Ferrara Center in Hazleton this weekend by the Pennsylvania Theatre of Performing Arts.
If you’ve ever been part of a bee, or even if you’ve ever been an awkward adolescent, you’re bound to feel sympathy for this motley little group.
“They ARE characters,” director Jessica Benjamin said with a laugh. “They all have their quirks.”
The speller who really tugs at people’s hearts, the director said, is a little girl named Olive.
“The part of Olive Ostrovski, played by Kay Childs, is almost sad. Her parents aren’t there. Her mom’s off (on a spiritual quest to India) and her dad’s not really there either. But she’s a friendly, happy kid.”
At first, Olive is hopeful her dad will show up and pay her entrance fee. Later, she worries in the song “I Love You” that she might actually win the Putnam County Bee and be sent to the National Spelling Bee. “If I go to Washington, will I be on my own?” she frets. “Because if I go to Washington, who will be my chaperone?”
“It’s very dream-like,” Benjamin said of the song. “Her parents join in. They’re not really there, but she’s hearing them. It’s so wonderful; you get chills.”
Most of the show is less haunting and, to borrow a root word from the bee, it doesn’t have quite so much in common with a mystical, fanciful c-h-i-m-e-r-a.
Audience members can expect near-constant laughs, Benjamin said, as well as singing and dancing and a celebration of words.
“We love talcum on our towels. We love consonants and vowels,” the ensemble explains in one number. “We are the fearless spellers.”
If you’re itching to join the cast on stage, you should probably arrive early and talk to a “representative of the Putnam County PTA” who will be out in the lobby looking for replacements for a few students who apparently went on a field trip and couldn’t attend the bee.
“We just ask that they can spell and be able to take a joke,” Benjamin said of the substitute spellers.
But, she warned, the words you might be given won’t necessarily be easy.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to the words that come up,” she said.
“The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee” appeared on Broadway more than 1,100 times from 2005 to 2008 and won two Tony Awards. Because of adult language, it is not suitable for young children.