Spelling T-E-A-M With A New Haven Flair

Lucy Gellman PhotoHow do you spell syzygy?



What’s hedonophobia? Can you use it in a sentence?

Such are the weighted, stress-inducing questions that punctuate The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, opening at the Co-Op Arts & Humanities High School this Thursday and Friday.

Audiences are in for much more than an expanded vocabulary. Produced by Kjerstin Pugh with assistance from Christi Sargent and Valerie Vollono (co-directors), James Teti (musical director), Jenna Malavasi (choreography director), Janie Alexander (tech director) and many others, The 25th builds on Co-Op High School’s rich tradition of a spring musical with an expanded ensemble, kicky choreography, stunning vocals and equal parts laughter and wit.

Inspired by Rebecca Feldman’s fringey C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, the musical follows six young district spelling champions from the fictitious Putnam County – plus three or four volunteer spellers from the audience – as they compete for a place in the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C.  When it hit Broadway in 2005 it made a loud splash, and it does again on the Co-Op High’s relatively new stage. Contestants’ frustrations, struggles and triumphs are put into song, their back stories slowly revealed as they step up to the microphone for another quiz word.

Pugh, who has been at Co-Op for three years and has produced the musical for the past two, explained that – as it takes many districts to make a county, and many counties to make a spelling champ – the undertaking has only been possible as a team effort. A little time with the cast and crew shows why: in between tackling definitions and etymologies, the ensemble has taken a simpler word – family – very much to heart.

“The experience I’ve had at Co-Op is one I’ve never had before,” Zshekinah Collier, who plays Olive’s largely absent mother, offered. “I’ve been in plays before, but it feels like it’s better at Co-Op. I like being around everybody. We feel more like a family than separate people.”  Noamble Tanner, who is in her first year at Co-Op, agreed enthusiastically: “It’s really fun…a lot of new friendships made. The directors are great, the ensemble is great…we’re all like one big family. One big dysfunctional family sometimes, but one big family.”

Malavasi (pictured below), the musical’s director of choreography and a first-year English teacher at Co-Op, added that students weren’t the only ones to feel a strong sense of community. “I have a degree in performing arts with a concentration in musical theater, and one of the reasons I became a teacher is so I can do after-school theater programs,” she explained. “My experience has been amazing.”

Amazing, perhaps, because the students consistently deliver, slipping so seamlessly into character that viewers may find themselves at the edge of their seats, stomachs in knots at the thought of misspelling cystitis or caterjunes. The secret to the cast and crew’s success is surprisingly simple: they have fun as a community.

At an arts-focused high school where students’ “majors” (dance, visual arts, theater, creative writing or music) make up 90 minutes of their day and their most immediate cohort, the musical has allowed – and encouraged – interaction between both concentrations and grade level. “Regardless of art, regardless of grade, everyone’s allowed to audition for the musical. It’s a great way for kids to meet each other,” Pugh explained. Rachel Zwick (pictured above), a senior who plays awkward 10-year-old Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, added: “It’s really neat to have everybody’s art come together to make a cohesive performance.”

The musical has also been a chance for student leadership. Jeremey Lombard, a senior who was just accepted into Western Connecticut State University for music performance, is directing the show’s pit band – a responsibility generally reserved for an established musician – as his senior capstone project. “This is a really big honor,” Lombard said of the experience. “Since I’ve been at Co-Op, I’ve been really interested in conducting, so to finally be able to do it is super cool. It’s a lot harder than I thought…when I first got here, I thought ‘oh, I’ll sit down and wave my stick around and everything will happen.’ But it’s a process.”

Pugh saw his initiative as what the musical was all about. “He’s done a tremendous job. It’s a lot to take on, and he knew how much it was to take on, but he was extremely professional and he did an amazing job. We’re going to miss him when he graduates!”

For these reasons and more, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has evolved into an exercise in artistic community building on all levels. Specifically chosen for its large ensemble, the script also offered a chance for creative license. Malavasi added elaborate dance moves to numbers like “Life is Pandemonium” (above) while the directors used the auditorium’s two-tiered space as an extension of the stage, bringing the quirky, fast-paced atmosphere of a middle school spelling bee directly to the audience. 

With any luck – and with the way tickets are selling – New Haveners will do much more than dehibernate in time for Thursday’s opening. They will turn out en masse for this delectable locus of creativity.

Or, as we yeomen say, a darn good show.

Co-Op’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is presented by Co-Op High School, the Comprehensive Arts Department of the City of New Haven, and Co-Op After School, whose partners include Dwight Hall at Yale and the Shubert Theater. Performances are Thursday March 20th and Friday March 21st at 2:30 and 6:30 pm. Tickets are $10 (student) and $15 (adult) at the door or reduced beforehand.

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