The Albany High School production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will open tonight (Friday, Feb. 1) and run for six performances through Sunday, Feb. 10.
The musical comedy, which won two Tony awards for its 2005 Broadway production, immerses the audience in a fictional middle school spelling bee, to the point that some (willing) members may even find themselves on the stage, competing with an eccentric collection of young logophiles (“word lovers”).
This year's musical is a product of the school's Theater Ensemble, formed just last year and now cutting its teeth on a student-led and managed show. The retirement last year of AHS drama teacher Sarah Samonsky left the club without a mentor, but AHS teacher Carla Swan (and mother of the show's assistant director, senior Krystal Swan) stepped in as a replacement. With both the AHS choir and band teachers tied up with conflicting commitments, the Ensemble also had to find a music director for the show.
For many, Theater Ensemble is a first opportunity to be creative, on a public stage. Theater Ensemble, as a student-leg organization, raises the stakes to ask that they present and defend proposed decisions to peers, and to listen to and evaluate those of others.
Ensemble member Cordy Driussi (who plays past Bee champion, and current Bee hostess, Rona Lisa Peretti) explains the Ensemble's structure: “Theater Ensemble's leadership is elected at a picnic at the end of every year. The Council is made up of upperclassmen who pitch why they would be good for the position, and then the members vote. We try to have representation from every side of the Ensemble: different sides of tech, musical, directing, acting, etc. TE Council makes most of the logistical decisions, such as how to place the production weeks for the different shows, and how to work around conflicts.”
Sophie Gabel-Scheinbaum, last year's Drowsy Chaperone and this year's teen speller Olive Ostrovsky, sees the Ensemble working well: “We really try to take everyone's opinion and perspective into account when we can. And although there have been times where we disagree and have intense discussions or debates, we end up doing what is best for Theater Ensemble. We are proud of what we accomplish considering that there are not many shows or programs that are run almost 100 percent by students. Theater Ensemble works because we are extremely committed to what we do and passionate about continuing a thriving theater community at Albany High School.”
Aaron Teidemann, in his third AHS musical and playing the Bee's moderator, Vice Principal Panch, adds: “We function by a process of democracy and autocracy, its weird but at differing times we either have a huge amount of debate or none and we just all do stuff.”
Several of the students involved in the show, both among the actors, and the technical crew that has created the sets and will run each performance, from light to sound, see putting it together as the high point of their day. Leo Torrez, who plays contestant Leaf Coneybear, says, “This show is what makes me get up every morning.” Chelsea Calderon, who plays Schwartzy, agrees: “Theater Ensemble is what I look forward to everyday. If I'm having a bad day, Theater Ensemble just fills me up with laughter.”
Assistant Director Swan is proud of what they've accomplished this year. “The cast of 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee is one I feel honored to be with my last year in high school. This cast and crew has shown that even through difficult times and drastic changes, the arts pull through. There have been many hooks, hiccups and setbacks we have had to deal with and we came out on top. The hard work, dedication, and love these teens have put into this show really shows through. I hope that many people can come and enjoy the work we have put into it and get a good laugh.”
The Bee may produce just one winner (or not—better see the show!), but “Spelling Bee” is a grand collaboration, rewarding all who had a hand in it, from the actors and tech crew, to those of us who'll be in the seats.
Performances tonight and Saturday will be at 8 p.m., with a 5 p.m. show on Sunday, and then three more shows next weekend. Tickets are $10 for students and seniors, $15 for adults, and are available at the door (the AHS Little Theater) and via Brown Paper Tickets: http://ahstheaterspellingbee.brownpapertickets.com/
The show has a Facebook page as well: https://www.facebook.com/events/182278451896425/