Learning lessons and having laughs at Arden Theatre with ‘Spelling Bee’

‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ is on stage at Arden Theatre through June 18.
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Are you ready for some F-U-N?

Starting this weekend, ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ hits the stage at Arden Theatre. The Tony Award-winning, Broadway musical comedy from composers/writers William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin and Rebecca Feldman is directed by Philly’s Amina Robinson and runs through June 18.

Never a talking-down children’s production, and hardly an adult comedy, the thrill of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ is that it works, quirkily and audience-interactively, between those theatrical age groups. The Arden’s take on ‘T25APCSB’ is a truly smart, family-friendly fare that celebrates individuality and excellence without being all-together too friendly.

One Philadelphia actor, singer and director who knows well the quirk and intelligence of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ is Steve Pacek who, ten years ago, played the part of William Morris Barfée—a one-time Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist who wound up eliminated from past competition due to an allergic reaction to peanuts. Back to the Bee for more, Barfée is looking forward to using his peculiar method of competitive spelling to win the battle and get the girl.

Pacek again brings his youthful ebullience to the Arden’s iteration of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ in the exact same role.

You did this very same role at Theatre Horizon a decade ago. What do you recall about the book and music’s strengths, what will you change for age, wear and tear going into 2023?

Time certainly does fly. Never did I ever think that I’d be playing a kid again, but here we are. This is going to sound weird, but one of the book’s strengths, in my opinion, is that it gives room for improvisation. So, it has a way of always staying fresh every performance. And having four new audience members on-stage with us in the Bee every performance also keeps us in the moment. It also does a great job of letting the audience get to know these characters and understand them more than just how they appear on the surface. And the music is just so darn catchy and fun with some really great harmonies and unexpected twists and turns that make your ears want to hear more. We haven’t really changed much of anything besides a couple of the words the kids spell at the Bee, but that’s something the writers allow for as they give a bunch of options in the script.

Steve Pacek played the part of William Morris Barfée ten years ago at Theatre Horizon.Theatre Horizon

This script is perfectly balanced between quirky, adult, musical, comedy fare and family-friendly. 

Spelling Bee speaks to both kids, adults and everyone in between. There is definitely some adult humor that might fly over some of the younger folks’ heads. And there is a whole lot of silliness that will tickle the funny bones of kids of all ages. Throw in a handful of really beautiful, poignantly crafted moments too, and you definitely have a show for everyone. One caveat is the show deals with…let’s call it a “challenge” of puberty for boys with the song “My Unfortunate Erection.” So, if the birds-and-the-bees discussion hasn’t been had yet, maybe be open to some post-show discussions on the way home.

How does this script speak to you in an original and unique way?

For starters, who would think to make a musical out of a spelling bee? The idea itself is, and has always been, so unique.  I’m also a big fan of shows that can make you laugh and cry all at the same time, and Spelling Bee has always done that. I think it’s genius that they invite improvisation with the audience guest spellers in the script, which means you could come to the show every day and see something different. That’s brilliant.

What is your favorite musical moment within ‘T25APCSB’ and why?

I love the number that I get to sing, “Magic Foot,” because who doesn’t love a big unexpected song and dance production number at a spelling bee?  But the one that gets me and so many other people every time is “The I Love You Song.” It is a masterpiece of musical theater. You get to learn the beautiful and hard truths about one of the kids at the bee and the trio harmonies are exquisite. Gives me chills every time.

Tell the truth—were you good at spelling as a kid?

Nooooo. I was the worst speller. In the one and only spelling bee I was in during my time in fifth grade, I was the second person to get up to spell and the first to get out.  They threw the “I before E except after C” curve ball at me so early and I panicked. R-E-C-E-I-V-E.  No one else in the bee got out for the next four rounds. I was sitting in the losers’ section all by myself for like 45 minutes. The worst. Obviously, I haven’t fully let that go of that experience (laughs). Luckily, my character in ‘Spelling Bee’, William Barfée, fares better than I did, although I won’t give out any spoilers.

‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ runs from May 25 to June 18 at the Arden Theatre Company in Old City. For tickets and information, visit ardentheatre.org