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You’d better bone up on spelling to attend this play

August 22, 2018

Put on your thinking caps! Four people at each performance of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Upstage Arts in Webster will be picked from a sign-up sheet in the lobby to participate in the nail-biting competition at the center of the musical comedy.

“The audience volunteers will be asked to spell words that range from ridiculously easy, like ‘cow,’ to extremely hard,” said Tabitha Van Buren, who is directing the Aug. 24-Sept. 2 production.

The show is “child’s play” for most of the cast because grown-ups in this production portray the quirky middle school students who vie for the coveted spelling trophy.

Jacob Rodriguez, 18, said it’s fun “getting into the mindset” of his character, Leaf Coneybear, who is about the same age as Rodriguez was when he started performing at Upstage Arts.

“I have been in more than 50 musicals,” said the son of Myles and Cris Rodriguez of League City.

“He has also directed shows at Upstage Arts,” said Van Buren, the group’s creative director and the teacher for its weekly theater classes. “Jacob is amazing to work with.”

Rodriguez, a 2018 graduate of Clear Springs High School, where he played diminutive Lord Farquaad in last spring’s production of “Shrek the Musical,” is enrolling this fall at the University of Houston to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music education.

“My high school choir teachers influenced me,” he said. “When I get a job, I hope my school’s theater department will work with the choir to put on musicals.”

Whitney Wyatt, who teaches fall and spring theater academies at Bay Area Harbour Playhouse in Dickinson, plays the spelling bee’s moderator, Rosa Lisa Peretti.

“She won the third annual Putnam County spelling bee, and this is her ninth year to be a host,” Wyatt said. “This has always been a dream show for me to do because it’s very fun and very funny.”

Most of the songs by William Finn are hilarious, said Wyatt, with the exception being “The I Love You Song,” which she calls “beautiful musically, dramatic and emotional.”

Finn was nominated for a Tony Award for his score, while the show won two Tonys in 2005 for best book of a musical (by Rachel Sheinkin) and for Dan Fogler’s performance as William Barfée, who spells out words with his “magic foot” in order to “see” the letters before speaking them. In contrast, the character played by Rodriguez goes into a trance when he spells.

Jade Wadkins plays William Barfée at Upstage Arts.

Rounding out the cast are: Hayden West, Daneille Webster, Brady Sorrels, Andrea Richards, Nina Kaskar, Heather Garsen and Tabitha Fox.

Webster also serves as the show’s music director.

Garsen choreographed the production.

Van Buren said some upcoming shows to be presented by children’s classes at Upstage Arts will include “Junie B. Jones” in October, a teen version of “Disney’s Newsies the Musical” in October, “A Christmas Story: The Play” in December and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in January 2019.

Wyatt said her students at BAHP will perform two shows in November.

“We are unique in that we pick shows based on which kids we have in our classes,” she said. “We could pick a musical that’s already out there, or write our own or do a musical revue.”

Don Maines is a freelance writer who can be reached at donmaines@att.net

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