Eighteen area teens will take to the stage for a four-day run of the Birmingham Village Youth Theatre’s summer production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, opening at 7 p.m. Thursday. The Tony Award-winning musical comedy revolves around six quirky teens competing in the county spelling bee and three equally quirky grown-ups who run it.
Nine principal actors will be joined by nine chorus members, all of whom have been rehearsing for 10 weeks to bring the show to life.
“We’ve done some really innovative things with the chorus,” said director Debbie Tendrick. “We integrated the chorus into songs that it wouldn’t normally be in, giving the kids a lot more stage time and experience.”
The musical’s success on Broadway isn’t the only reason Tendrick was so excited that the group’s board of directors selected Spelling Bee for its spring musical.
“I’ve been dying to do this play because of the interactive element,” said Tendrick, who also serves as music director for the show. “It features what we call a ‘fourth wall down’ aspect, meaning the audience is involved.”
Tendrick said Spelling Bee is the first Village Youth Theatre performance with an improvisational component, which she maintains is great training for the cast’s young actors, who will regularly find that performances don’t always go as planned.
“For example, during one of our dress rehearsals, the top of the spelling bee trophy broke off unexpectedly,” Tendrick recalled. “But everyone stayed perfectly in character. The improvisational aspect of this show has trained the kids for moments like that.”
During the show, several audience members will be invited on stage to join the cast as guest spellers, which Tendrick said often leads to hilarity as the words get more and more difficult.
Spelling Bee also shines a light on social issues such as bullying, relatable to teens on and off stage.
“One character has a lisp and is often ridiculed; another is an outsider lacking some basic social skills,” Tendrick explained. “All of the participants have different things going on in their lives that they bring with them to the bee. In the end, they all learn more about themselves and each other. Their fears and quirks are illuminated in the songs.”
Spelling Bee is the second of two musicals in the Village Youth Theatre's 2010-11 season. In December, the troupe presented Narnia: The Musical. Other past performances of the Village Youth Theatre have included Mulan and Rent, the latter of which included Leora Ben Ze’ev of Huntington Woods in its cast. She will once again grace the Village Youth Theatre stage with a starring role in Spelling Bee as Olive Ostrovsky.
“Olive has been my dream role since I was in the eighth grade,” said Ben Ze’ev, 18, a recent graduate of Berkley High School. “I first saw the show when the tour made a stop at the Fisher Theater a few years ago and then saw it again later at Stagecrafters in Royal Oak.
“Olive has an amazing song called 'The I Love You Song' with an F sharp belt. It is the highest belt I will have ever performed," Ben Ze'ev said. "It’s a sweet and sad song and my favorite of the show.”
Ben Ze’ev is joined by teens in seventh through 12th grades hailing from nearby communities, including Birmingham, Beverly Hills, Bloomfield Hills and West Bloomfield. All were required to audition for the show by performing a monologue, singing and participating in improv games. The cast has been rehearsing for more than two months, two or three times a week after school.
“Because the cast is small, we’ve all gotten close,” Ben Ze’ev said.
Ben Ze’ev and Tendrick agree that the show will appeal to a wide audience.
“It’s a show that people can enjoy even if they aren’t into musicals,” Ben Ze’ev said. “That’s why I wanted to be involved. You don’t have to sit through jazz hands and kick-line numbers.”
Tendrick has one suggestion for the audience: “Bring a broad sense of humor!”
Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets, which cost $15 for adults and $12 for children and students, are available now online, from the box office or by phone at 248-644-2075.