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Spelling Bee breaks from tradition

The Bee Must Go On

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There is a moment, roughly halfway through The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, when the students on stage pop the straws in their juice boxes and take a break on the bleachers. While this is occurring, a recently eliminated spelling bee contestant hands out candy to the crowd and sings a musical number entitled "My Unfortunate Erection." This is a modern take on the intermission. The lights don't come up and the doors don't come open. The show simply moves right along.

The Tony Award-winning Putnam succeeds because it capitalizes on the comedy inherent in a group of adults playing an anxious bunch of middle school overachievers. It opens at the Dock Street Theatre this weekend. A note in the script says that the break on stage can be used as an audience intermission, but the Charleston Stage production will be sticking with the original setup and going without.

Director Kyle Barnette says he has seen the Bee done with an intermission, and it was a buzz kill. "You don't take a pause in a spelling bee," he says. "At the end of the day, it's like you're watching a competition — the drama, the tension, the buildup. If you break that in half, it loses the excitement."

The format has its doubters. The Village Voice's entertainment staple Michael Musto commented last year on the growing trend. "Driving Miss Daisy drives to the finish line without giving you 15 minutes to run out to the Piggly Wiggly and back," he wrote. Before you worry about busting your bladder, fear not: Putnam is a brisk one hour and 25 minutes long and, frankly, there are many Broadway classics that would be wrapping up Act 1 at about that time.

And the show is not alone. This weekend, the Village Playhouse will wrap up its run of The Drowsy Chaperone, another modern Broadway hit with no intermission. The show itself is a satire on musicals, so, of course, it pokes fun at the omission. Set in the living room of a Broadway fan while he listens to the cast album from Chaperone, the narrator turns the record over and explains that this would be the time for the intermission "if we were sitting in a theater, watching The Drowsy Chaperone. Which we're not." Then, he exits to go to the bathroom while the show continues.

For the Putnam production, running straight through has little impact backstage, since most of the cast members stay on stage until they're eliminated. And they don't have much choreography to wear them out, says Barnette. "It's not a big ol' splashy musical," he says. "This is like directing a play with music in it."

And there are a few more important hurdles to overcome than the timing of a cigarette break for audience members. Having adults playing a group of kids is a major appeal of the show. "It's so subversive and innocent at the same time," Barnette says. "Making a fine balance of that is probably the biggest challenge I've had."

There's also a healthy dose of unpredictability embedded in the show. "One of the characters goes off on a current-events tangent and compares the spelling bee to something going on," Barnette says. "This week, we're rehearsing with Egypt. We don't even know what it will be next week."

Also, each night, four members of the audience (including celebrity guests) are invited on stage to be spelling bee contestants. The improvisation is a recipe for disaster and/or great comedy. "You're taking four people who don't know anything about theater and saying, 'Here, be in the show tonight,'" Barnette says. "And you don't just have to sit there, you have to participate." That also requires a cast that is quick on its feet. For example, local comedian Lee Lewis provides a lot of the on-the-fly introductions as the vice principal. "He's got a very difficult role, but he's a brilliant improvisationist," Barnette says.

Add in a few jabs at childhood allergies, lucky charms, and an intimidating ex-con consoling the losers, and this no-break Bee just might live up to that old saying: Time flies when you're having fun.

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