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Tuesday, December 11 , 2018, 8:27 am | Fair 42º


Gerald Carpenter: SBCC Theatre Group Stages ‘Putnam County Spelling Bee’

The Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group celebrates the opening of its 2013-14 season with a new production of the eccentric, Tony Award-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

The production features music and lyrics by William Finn and is based on the book by Rachel Sheinkin and conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with additional material by Jay Reiss. It is directed by R. Michael Gros with musical direction by David Potter, choreography by Allison Bibicoff, sets and lighting design by Patricia Frank, and costumes by Pamela Shaw.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee stars Whitney Claire Kaufman, a guest equity actress, Madelyn Adams, Lilli Babb, Taylor Winfield Babcock, Brian Harwell, Miller James, Emily Jewell, Skyler Jones, Allison Lewis and Tad Murroughs.

According to SBCC’s support material, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a “tale of overachievers’ angst, chronicling the experience of six adolescents vying for the spelling championship of a lifetime. The show’s Tony Award-winning creative team has created the unlikeliest of hit musicals about the unlikeliest of heroes: a quirky yet charming cast of outsiders for whom a spelling bee is the one place where they can stand out and fit in at the same time.”

The show began life as a non-musical play — C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E — put on by the New York-based improvisational group The Farm. In the way of things in New York’s intimate, almost incestuous theater world, Sarah Saltzberg, one of the actors in the original piece, was the weekend nanny for playwright Wendy Wasserstein of The Heidi Chronicles.

Persuaded to attend a performance C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E (“crepuscule” is an ugly word that sounds like the title of a Tobe Hooper or George Romero movie, but actually just means “twilight”), Wasserstein was knocked out by the show and brought it to the attention of her friend, William FinnMake Me a Song — who got together with his former student, Rachel Sheinkin, and C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E creator Rebecca Feldman, and the three of them turned it into a full-length musical.

After a winter workshop at the Barrington Stage Company in Sheffield, Mass., The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee had its first full production in a cafeteria turned theater the following summer. Then the show went to off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre, where it was a box-office and critical triumph, before moving to Broadway’s Circle in the Square (April 2005). More success and rave reviews led to nomination for five Tony Awards (it won two).

An unusual feature of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is that, before every performance, four audience volunteers are recruited to participate on stage as guest spellers, making each performance unique and unrepeatable. The willing contestants are chosen through a careful vetting process, utilizing pre-show lobby interviews and audience questionnaires. Better bring a dictionary, just in case.

Performances of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be in the newly remodeled Garvin Theatre through July 27 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $22 for general admission, $17 for seniors and $12 for students (Thursday evening and Sunday matinees), and $24 for general admission, $19 for seniors and $15 for students (Friday and Saturday evenings).

Parking is free and near the theater. The Garvin Theatre is located on the West Campus of Santa Barbara City College in the 900 block of Cliff Drive. For information or reservations, call the Garvin Theatre box office at 805.965.5935, or click here to purchase tickets online.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are his own.

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