Morristown theater company brings 'Putnam County Spelling Bee' to Walters State

Mar. 02, 2014 @ 11:43 PM

You’ve seen them on TV, those gawky kids who, in pursuit of national spelling-bee glory, nervously spell out words like ptyalagogue and avellaneous.

Now Sevier Countians can enjoy the experience live, in musical-comedy form. On Saturday, March 8, at the Sevier County campus of Walters State Community College, Morristown-based Encore Theatrical Company will present its staging of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The performance is scheduled for 2 p.m.

In the Tony Award-winning show, which ran for three years on Broadway, adult performers play contestants in a middle-school spelling competition.

“It’s about that time in life when we’re so awkward,” said the local production’s director, Drew Ogle. “We’re not quite children and not quite adults, and everything takes on more importance than maybe it should.”

The show celebrates kids’ individuality, Ogle said. “That’s not something we see a lot in the media today. You turn on the TV, and all the kids are beautiful and smart.”

The “Putnam County” kids are, Ogle said, “not that. These are the misfits.”

Of the 12 performers in “Putnam County Spelling Bee,” eight had taken part in a grammar-school spelling bee, Ogle said. “And seven could remember the word they got knocked out on.”

“Putnam County Spelling Bee” was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rebecca Feldman. In February, Encore’s production had a two-week run at Walters State’s Morristown campus.

“The most interesting thing about this play is that at each performance, we recruit members of the audience to participate in the spelling bee,” Ogle said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

“Putnam County Spelling Bee” is the first show of Encore’s new season. “We always try to do newer works,” said Ogle, who also is Encore’s managing director. “We try to be a little off the beaten path at times, so this one really fit the bill.”

The other shows in Encore’s Morristown current season, its eighth, are “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (May 9-18), “Shrek: The Musical” (July 18-Aug. 3), “August: Osage County” (Sept. 12-21) and “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” (Nov. 28-Dec. 7).

Ogle grew up in Gatlinburg, and he went to Gatlinburg-Pittman High School. He notes that most live entertainment in Sevier County is for tourists, but that a show like “Putnam County” can serve local audiences.

Walters State administrators are eager to expand the college’s arts offerings beyond the main campus in Morristown, Ogle said. On Sunday, March 9, Encore will present “Putnam County” at Walters State’s Claiborne County campus.

“They’re highly supportive of the arts and the impact they can have on students,” he said of college officials. “That’s why they’re eager to get arts programs out to other campuses.”

kburns@themountainpress.com