Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This past weekend, from Friday, November 10 to Sunday, November 12, Swarthmore students in the Departments of Theater and Music & Dance staged four performances of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the LPAC Pearson-Hall Theater.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a Tony Award-winning musical comedy about “an eclectic group of six mid-pubescents [vying] for the spelling championship of a lifetime.” The original Broadway production ran from April 15, 2005 to January 20, 2008.
The Theater and Music & Dance collaboration is the Theater Department’s first ever musical production, presented as part of the department’s Production Ensemble I (THEA 22) course. Through this course, students were given the opportunity to “work with professional theater artists in the creation of a fully-designed and rendered production.”
Students not enrolled in the course at the beginning of the semester had another chance to participate in the production, however, by auditioning for the acting roles. Audition sign-ups were advertised through flyers and word of mouth.
“I got involved in the production through a combination of seeing the flyers on campus and [Director and Professor] Alex Torra recommending I audition for it,” Zachary Weiss ‘21 wrote in an email to DG correspondent Khye Lin Tan ’20. Weiss played Charlito “Chip” Tolentino, “the coolest of the spelling bee kids and the winner of the previous year’s competition.”
“I have never heard nor seen this musical before. I wanted to be a part of it because I love musicals in general and I figured I would enjoy one directed by Alex Torra,” Weiss added.
Maya Kikuchi ‘20, who played Olive Ostrovsky, “a shy and socially awkward preteen who loves her dictionary and is neglected by her parents,” had a similarly spontaneous auditioning experience.
“I saw fliers and heard about it from several friends who were auditioning, but I didn’t think I would audition until the day before (my friends convinced/pressured me). I didn’t know anything about the musical, but I’ve done musical theater throughout my life and I realized this might be my only chance to experience it here at Swat,” Kikuchi wrote.
Acting roles aside, Swarthmore students were also heavily involved in all facets of production, working under the direction of Torra, Professor Matt Saunders, Professor Laila Swanson, and Professor Liz Atkinson, as well as theater professionals Dann Dunn and James P. Murphy.
In a particularly special case, Shira Samuels-Shragg ‘20 served as Musical Director of the production. Samuels-Shragg was the only student who worked alongside the professors and professionals as part of the production’s “Creative Team.”
“Being the music director for [The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling] Bee has been completely fantastic, if all-consuming. I’ve been putting an average of twenty hours a week into this show, not counting all the prep work I did over the summer,” Samuels-Shragg wrote. “Getting to be part of a creative team where everyone other than myself is a professional … [has] given me invaluable insight into how productions are run in “the real world.”
Indeed, the hard work of the cast and crew seems to have paid off. Audience members have enthusiastically praised the production –– particularly its wit, acting, and choreography.
“I thought the atmosphere was really positive, [and] everyone seemed to enjoy the play and come away pleased they had gone and impressed by the production,” Tristan Beiter ‘19 said.
“I would list which roles were the most memorable but all the actors were so convincing,” Laura Chen ‘19 said. “I laughed way more than I thought I would – especially at Leaf and the Magic Foot. Transitions, coordination with the orchestra pit, and lighting felt seamless.”
“A show well done,” Chen concluded.