Sixth grade is making a W-O-R-D-Y comeback.
Beginning Friday, cutthroat middle school students will compete for the spelling bee title when Tony Award-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opens at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, reminding audiences of the quirks and nuances that come with growing up.
For the bee’s youngest competitor, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the spelling bee is about taking part in healthy competition — and winning.
“Some of these characters are maybe thrown in there by their parents or do this every year, or maybe they’re the type of kid that competes in spelling but also plays softball and also plays basketball and takes art classes,” says Tessa Faye, who plays Logainne. “[For] my character, Logainne, this is an academic competition, and she’s there to win.”
Chip Tolentino is the previous year’s champion who comes from a very supportive background, but this time around throws him for a loop when he experiences “some of the changes that occur as you grow into manhood,” says Tommy Martinez, who plays Chip.
For other students, awkward moments kicked in a lot earlier.
William Morris Barfee (pronounced “bar-fay”) wears huge glasses, a middle part, has lots of sweat and a rare mucus membrane problem, but he wont tolerate being picked on forever.
“The biggest sort of defining part of his character is he’s one of those kids — and I absolutely knew one of these kids growing up — that for years, he was picked on, and that turned him into the aggressor. He becomes the kid who picks or who yells or who shouts [to] sort of deflect the world from ganging up on him,” says Patrick Halley, who plays William.
But it’s not all ruthless competition. At the bee — or on this “island of misfit toys,” as Halley says — the outcasts finally find their niche.
“I think they realize they’re not alone,” Martinez says. “We all end up coming together and being closer, and it’s just a part of becoming a unit, as you hopefully end up finding when you grow up, finding people that are like you, and that’s what we do.”
Leaf Coneybear is a kid who thinks he isn’t that smart but is grateful to be at the bee. However, he might be better than he initially thought.
“It’s like the eighth kid in the lineup of a baseball team, and they one day just pop out a high fly, and they get an in-the-park home run,” Faye says. “You see it on that kid’s face and the parents’ face in the bleachers that something changes in that kid forever. They may not hit another home run all season, but that one day was really it. Leaf Coneybear has moments like that.”
Personal factors also affect the students’ self-esteem and performance. Logainne’s two dads push her to be the best, William’s father’s new marriage has taken priority, and Olive Ostrovsky just wishes her parents were in attendance.
With the title being up for grabs — and a Washington, D.C., hotel stay and big-screen TV — the show doesn’t shy from using audience participation. Volunteer audience members will join the cast members as they spell, sing and dance.
“I think in the audience, there’s even a feeling of, ‘One of these audience members might win the spelling bee,'” Faye says. “Who knows? The show is rooted in improv.”
Logainne, a political know-it-all, even has a portion of the show where she rants about current events, creating a new monologue every night that makes the show different each time.
Unlike some Broadway shows that take inspiration from a children’s book or movie, Spelling Bee takes a more original approach.
“Spelling Bee was developed by an incredibly talented group of actors and writers, and it’s all original,” Faye says. “Some of the original actors in the first production of Spelling Bee are even credited as writers because their jokes stuck.”
Even the music combines various elements. Genres include jazz, gospel, opera and more, Martinez says.
“Each of the spellers has a musical theme or motif that stays with them and tracks them throughout the show and is either happy and jazzy if things are going well or modified so it’s more filled with sadness,” Halley says. “It’s just constructed brilliantly.”
Be sure to stop by The Rep’s Scrabble-themed selfie station when you attend the show.
“[The show] actually strikes a chord with you because you want them to win,” Martinez says. “You care about them, and when it’s their turn to go, it actually reverberates with you, that you’re like, ‘Wait, I care about these kids.'”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs Oct. 16 through Nov. 18 at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. The Rep’s Pay What You Can Night takes place at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets are $30-$55. The show is recommended for a PG-13 audience. For tickets and more information, visit therep.org.