‘Spelling Bee’ a humorous look at competition

The second show in the Minot State University Summer Theatre series, with performance dates beginning Wednesday, June 26, and running through Sunday, June 30, is “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” written by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin.

“It takes place in fictionalized Putnam County, a fictionalized spelling bee,” said Aili Smith, director. The set, designed by Kevin Neuharth, is instantly recognizable as a school gym, lacking only a basketball hoop.

“Six characters come to the spelling bee to compete, and the play examines the questions of why we as human beings compete,” Smith said. “We compete at work, for promotions and with ourselves. Maybe we should take a step back and look at all this competition, and ask ourselves, ‘Do I need this?’ That sounds pretty deep, but it really is a comedy.”

There are more than a dozen original numbers in the play, with Briana Schwan taking the double duties of music director and pianist for this show. She is leading a band consisting of keyboardist Jasmine Massingil, Justin Johnson covering the woodwinds, and percussionist Susie Stevick.

“It’s not a well-known musical, but it should be,” said Smith.

As the show begins, six characters, played by Brett Olson, Emily Wirkus, Jason Gaarder, Chris Stroschein, Katie Langemo and Kena Davidson, come to the spelling bee to compete. They are joined by audience members interested in participating as finalist spellers.

“You can identify yourself to Peg Morris when you buy your tickets,” said Smith. “We don’t just pick people out of the audience, so there’s no need to be afraid of being called on.”

There are five “adults,” with Sarah Thom playing the moderator; Joe Koppinger as vice principal Douglas Panch, who is the official word reader; and Daniel Johnson as Mitch Mahoney, who is the comfort counselor for the losers.

“It may be a one-dimensional-sounding premise,” said Smith, “but we’ve tried to flesh out the spellers, investigating their back stories and relationships with other spellers. This is an experienced group of actors, and they did a good job of the table work, one rehearsal where we sat around a table and worked out that back story.

“I first saw a touring show of this in 2007 in Detroit, Mich., and always thought it would be a good fit for the Summer Theatre. It’s a perfect show to follow ‘Shrek,’ with a simple set, no special costumes since it’s a contemporary show, and not such a huge cast.”

Smith also applauded her crew, in particular Katie Fast as wardrobe mistress, Jake Flaten the stage manager, and her assistant director Abby Schoenborn, who has just graduated from the University of North Dakota with a degree in musical theater.

Tickets are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students, $5 for children under 12, and $3 for MSU summer students, faculty and staff. Call 858-3228 for reservations, box office or ticket information. June 30 is the military discount night, sponsored by Northern Tier Federal Credit Union. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., with reservations needing to be picked up by 8:15 p.m. for the 8:30 p.m. shows. In the event of rain, rain checks will be issued, but only if the show is cancelled by 9 p.m. The bringing of your own mosquito protection is strongly recommended.

Smith wants everyone who purchased the special refillable popcorn buckets and root beer float cups to remember to bring them along to help save money while supporting the Summer Theatre.