In the classic "actor's nightmare," you're standing center stage in the spotlight. The audience stares, waiting for your next line. Behind you, costumed performers fidget, wondering why you haven't picked up your cue. You have no idea what play you're in, why you never rehearsed or what you're supposed to say. Are you Hamlet or Lady Bracknell? Is this Oklahoma! or Oh! Calcutta? Just before you die of fright in one of these Freudian anxiety episodes, you wake up in a trembling sweat, thankful to be in your own bed and not on the boards. It is only a dream.
And then one night, it happens for real.
It happens to me at a new off-Broadway show called The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The good buzz about William Finn's new musical begins when The New York Times predicts Bee will be a honey in a story titled "The Sweet Spell of Success." Critics greet its opening with superlatives, calling it "irresistible" and "lovingly handcrafted." It's compared to A Chorus Line and the award-winning documentary Spellbound.
The first show I book for a theater weekend in NYC is Spelling Bee, performed in an intimate space above 43rd Street called Second Stage Theatre, not far from where The Producers is still running. Spelling Bee is considered off-Broadway, though it's just across Eighth Avenue from the glare of Broadway marquees.
"Are you a good speller?" asks a young man approaching me in the lobby with a clipboard.
"I am," I reply.
"Ever been in a spelling bee?" he asks.
I tell him I was the champion speller of Stonewall Jackson Elementary. This was eons ago, before spellcheck, back when young 'uns scribbled vocabulary words on Big Chief tablets. I won a ball point pen and a Kip's hot fudge sundae for correctly spelling "Louisiana" before I lost a shot at a Schwinn at the district level to a Lakewood kid named Rush Russell, who knocked me out on "doily."
"Would you like to be part of our show?" asks clipboard guy.
Let's see, I'm not there as an official reviewer. I've bought my own ticket. To bee or not to bee. No question, I'm in.
Five minutes before curtain, I'm fetched from my seat. In the wings I meet director James Lapine, a multiple Tony winner for shows he's staged for Finn, Sondheim and others. There are four of us civilian spellers. One man is a spelling teacher, one is a lawyer and the other woman works on Wall Street. I notice we're all of a certain age, possibly because we're the last generation drilled to spell correctly.
"Don't act. Don't try to be funny. Don't mug or move around too much," Lapine tells us. "Just follow the actors. And every time it's your turn, ask for a definition of the word and ask the pronouncer to use it in a sentence. Don't forget that."
We're to be part of the show's mock spelling bee. Based on a play called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, the show became The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee when playwright Wendy Wasserstein saw it and persuaded her friend Finn, composer of Falsettos and A New Brain, to turn it into a musical. Lapine tells me later that it's been honed in small theaters and workshops for three years, prepping for this month-long off-Broadway run. (And since the good reviews, there's now talk of a move to Broadway.)
Six young adult actors play adolescent spelling whizzes, gathering for the countywide bee in a junior high gym. Each is a bit of a misfit. There's Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), the hippie kid who goes into a trance to spell. And Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Saltzberg), raised by two gay dads who tell her "God hates losers." Bulky William Barfee (Dan Fogler) suffers from peanut allergies and sinus conditions and spells with the aid of his "magic foot." When he's asked to spell "antihistamine," it almost seems unfair to the others.
After the cast marches out to the opening number, my name is called and I take a spot in the onstage bleachers next to Marcy Park (Deborah S. Craig), a tiny genius who speaks six languages. Vice Principal Panch (Jay Reiss) and teacher Miss Peretti (Lisa Howard) sing the traditional spelling bee rules.
Then the bee begins. Characters alternate with us civilians on words such as "boanthropy" (the delusion that one is an ox) and "omphaloskepsis" (contemplation of one's navel). My first word is "casserole," a cinch. When I get it right, I hear applause. Hurrah! I'm the greatest speller on five consonants! The audience seems to love it that one of their own is competing. Then the spelling teacher misses his word and is escorted offstage by the "comfort counselor" (Derrick Baskin), who gives each loser a box of juice and a hug, just like at real bees. The fear of public humiliation looms large.
But we're not just there to spell. This is a musical, and between spelling words, there are big musical numbers. With real actors on either side, I'm pulled off the bleachers to kick, hop, skip and bob my head to the music just like I know what I'm doing. I throw myself into it full-bore (not to be confused with boar).
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Then it's back to serious business. Never too serious, though. The script for Spelling Bee is a howl. "Can you use it in a sentence?" asks a speller given "phylactery" (a Jewish religious object). "Billy, put down that phylactery--we're Episcopalians," offers Vice Principal Planch.
Eventually it's time for all civilians to be ousted. Wall Street lady gets "balmacaan" (an overcoat). My last word sounds like "batkin," defined as "Yiddish for juggler." I stand alone at the mike in the spotlight, audience staring and giggling at my panicked expression. "Am I pronouncing it correctly?" I nervously ask Planch. "It doesn't matter," he deadpans, getting a huge laugh.
I look down at the front row and see a familiar face in the audience. It's Dallas actor Donald Fowler, star of many shows at WaterTower Theatre and Uptown Players. I've written some brutal things about him in past reviews. Now it's payback. He gets to watch me in Spelling Bee swell up with hives and fluff it under flop-sweat. It's the actor's nightmare and the critic's nightmare.
When I fail to juggle the letters of "badchen" correctly, I feel the hug of the comfort counselor as the cast sings me offstage with the goodbye song. Adrenaline still pumping, I return to my seat and look at my watch. It's nearly 9. I've been in an off-Broadway show for close to an hour. After curtain calls, my fellow theatergoers congratulate me on my performance. Lapine later tells me the cast thought I did great. Even Fowler is complimentary. It's an unforgettable experience any way you spell it.