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New play includes many firsts

What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

When: 7 p.m. March 14-17

Where: Dan Heintzleman Auditorium, 2125 Wrenwood Ave. SW, Wyoming.

Details: Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students 18 and under and can be purchased at the door or in advance by calling (616) 530-7590 ext 2367

Never ones to shy away from a challenge, Wyoming High School student actors are bringing to the stage the quirky characters obsessed with spelling their way to perfection in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a show that combines raucous humor and music with underlying themes that hit home for youth.

Cast members who are presenting the PG-13-rated Tony Award-winning musical comedy recently sat down to talk about how humor and satire can be used to start dialogue.

Taking on their roles has allowed them to go deep into character development, while recognizing strong themes of isolation, anxiety and abandonment.

Juan-Pablo Angel Marcos plays last year’s spelling bee champion

“It generally highlights a lot of the problems kids actually face today while growing up,” said senior Nick Byrd, who plays “touchy, on-edge” William Barfee. Those include pressure to over-achieve; a hard time making friends; and even for adults, problems moving on from their past.

Added senior Caitlyn Bulthuis, who plays spelling bee host Rona Perriti, “The humor the show brings to the audience is a way to start a conversation that needs to be talked about, especially around abandonment and always feeling like you have to achieve.”

Caitlyn said many teens are overwhelmed by their hyper-scheduled lives, like some characters in the play.

Mellisa Hadzikic performs during rehearsal on stage

“It’s a lot of pressure for kids and I think the kids in the play, even though they are excited to be in the spelling bee, they feel a lot of pressure to do well,” she said. “It’s a good way to start a conversation for students and adults.”

Another theme is winning at all costs, said Juan-Pablo Angel Marcos, who plays “boy scout” Chip Tolentino. There is so much emphasis on winning, he said, that characters dismiss other things that should be more important.

Senior Mellisa Hadzikic agreed.

“They are so focused on this one topic that it kind of consumes them,” said Mellisa, who plays the “shy” Olive Ostrovsky. “Their parents have these high expectations and want them to succeed, but the kids are under so much stress from other things that are happening, it makes them want to explode.”

Mellisa Hadzikic says the musical explores serious topics through comedy

Many ‘Firsts’ for Theater Company

Jeremy Schnotala, 24-year Wyoming theater director whose repertoire includes high school performances of “Willy Wonka,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Cats,”  and “Spamalot,” said the play includes a lot of firsts for the Wyoming Theater Company: It’s their biggest set yet, includes audience involvement that requires improv, and adds a “cheerleader” chorus that isn’t in the original production. Plus, serious issues span a wide spectrum of topics.

“What most excites me is how amazing my cast has connected with the story and with each of their roles,” Schnotala said. “I also love how the show juxtaposes humor and emotion. One minute you are laughing, and the next minute you’re crying. I’ve cried several times during rehearsal already. The show is honestly very touching and has some of the most tender moments, as well as the most raucously funny, of any show I’ve ever directed.”

Director Jeremy Schnotala has led Wyoming theater for 24 years, bringing big shows to the stage

Students said they love that Schnotala puts them up to big challenges.

“He respects us and understands we are people who are going to grow up and are growing up,” said senior Alexis Soto-Rodriguez, who plays the “desperate” Vice Principal Douglas Panch. “We are not just elementary school students who aren’t dealing with these grown-up topics. Not watering down or making it easier shows he has a lot of faith and respect in us.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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