If you love Broadway musicals and hated middle school, chances are you’ll relish “The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee.”
A tight, ebullient production will open Thursday at Fort Lewis College and will run two weekends through July 24. The six evening performances will start at 7:30 p.m. with one 2p.m. matinee July 21.
A new company, Animas Rooted Theatre, or A.R.T., chose “Spelling Bee” because Durango’s 2019 summer seemed high on music and dry on theater.
Two FLC theater students, Hallie Denman and Harrison Wendt, have started a local, nonprofit theater company to launch a project they hope will continue into future summers. Both work day jobs but said they wanted to fill a perceived void with a show. The idea blossomed in January, and by spring, the two had talked with faculty in the Music and Drama departments and key people in Advancement.
“We learned a lot about the business side,” Denman said. “Originally, we thought of starting out as a club at FLC. Then Harrison suggested we form a nonprofit.”
With the help of FLC mentors, Denman and Wendt established a process, a board and a budget.
“Our goal at first was to raise $8,000,” Denman said. “$1,000 was for the rights alone. So far, we’ve raised $6,000. My voice teacher, Kerry Ginger, encouraged us to write grants. And Andreas Tischhauser (FLC Advancement) suggested we also form a student board.
“We picked this show because there are only nine actors,” Denman continued. “There’s a minimal set and costumes, and it’s fairly well known. These were all aspects we believe are important for a first production with hardly any money.”
The cast is made up of current and former FLC students with a creative team headed by faculty member Theresa Carson. Music Director Abrianna Judson, pianist Paula Millar, percussionist Chris Moraga and choreographer Emily Simpson Grandt fill out the crew.
“We don’t have a costumer,” Denman said. “We gave all the actors the responsibility to come up with their own costumes.”
“We have a small budget for a few odd things,” Wendt added, “school posters, for example, and a Jesus costume with beard.”
The set, a fictional school gymnasium, requires tiered bleachers, an official table and a microphone. Roshong is acoustically perfect, and its 135 seats make for an intimate theater experience. Stage manager Izabella Gray has control of a good sound and light booth. The challenge will be to shape a production that has known outsize performances in big Broadway theaters to a small venue.
Denman will play Olive Ostrovsky, the shy student who desperately wants to be in the contest but cannot afford the $25 entrance fee. Wendt will be the smart, nerdy William Morris Barfée who has an unusual process for spelling out words. In addition, you’ll see Zoe Larsen as Logaine, Isabelle Rosales as Marcy, Caleb Sapa as Leaf and Zack Bauer as Chip. David Messer, Luke McCauley and Sadie Wendt, Harrison’s twin sister, will be the three adults in the room, the announcer, the school’s vice president and an ex-convict completing a community service requirement.
The Tony Award-winning musical grew out of comedy improv sketches in New York City. When it was transformed into a musical, it opened off-Broadway then ran on Broadway from 2005 to 2008. It won several awards, including Best Book for a Musical. After 1,136 performances, the musical has enjoyed world tours, bringing American competitiveness and adolescent angst to audiences from Oslo to Seoul, London to Tel Aviv.
One unusual feature calls for a few audience volunteers. If interested, sign up before the show starts. Audience spellers will be given small parts and probably eliminated before the show ends. Durango’s trivia fans might love this, so get your team together and show up.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.