Musical numbers key to SUNY Oswego's 'Spelling Bee'

SUNY Oswego’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” aims to spell out a good time for fans of contemporary musical theatre while adding a comic flair.

“It’s not like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ or ‘My Fair Lady,’” said Clay Price, the musical director for the fall play of the SUNY Oswego music and theatre departments. “The songs are more like ‘Wicked’; it feels like you’re listening to an upbeat tune or ballad on the radio.”

Price said the unique storyline and catchy melodies will entertain even those generally uninterested in musicals. The play features preteen “word nerds” battling for fame, honor and a trip to Washington, D.C., in an engaging coming-of-adolescence theme.

“Spelling Bee” will preview Thursday, Oct. 13, and run the weekends of Oct. 14 and 15 and Oct. 21 to 23 in Tyler Hall’s Waterman Theatre. Curtain will rise at 8 p.m. each day except the 2:30 p.m. finale on Sunday, Oct. 23.

The show has a humble lineage, first produced in 2004 in a cafeteria turned theatre in Massachusetts. From there, it moved off-Broadway in 2005 before selling out its venue and moving to Broadway, where it earned two Tony awards.

Rehearsal image

Debut effort

This is Price’s first year at SUNY Oswego—he is assistant professor of music and the new director of choral activities—and first time serving as musical director for a production.

“I’ve been in the chorus, the stage and the pit, but this is the first musical I’ve conducted,” said Price, who has a doctorate in choral conducting from the University of South Carolina. “It’s an interesting experience being on the other side of the podium.”

Traditional, Broadway-style musicals feature orchestras with strings, but for “Spelling Bee” the pit will boast an electronic keyboard, a large percussion section and one woodwind player who will alternate flute, alto saxophone, oboe and clarinet.

The play also uses its music to give more insight to each of the characters. “While traditional Broadway shows tend to use their songs to reinforce what already happened, here you get a lot of inside information that wasn’t present in the dialogue,” Price said.

“Spelling Bee” features six young students (and four audience volunteers) competing for the Putnam County Spelling Bee title, and each character uses his or her own quirky technique to spell.

Nathan Keep, a senior theatre major from Homer, plays William Barfee, one of the young competitors. “My character has a lot of allergies, he’s really stuck up and he doesn’t like the other kids,” Keep said. “He uses his ‘magic foot’ to spell out the words, and even has a magic foot song.”

Shifting gears

One of Price’s favorite songs is “The Prayer of the Comfort Counselor,” about an adult character who takes care of the competitors after they misspell a word. “It begins as a ballad but progresses into a surprise ending that I don’t think a lot of the audience will see coming,” Price said.

The group numbers also add flair and spontaneity to the production as they move from character to character, varying tempos, melodies and feel. “They’re a lot of fun to conduct because it’s so fast-paced, you switch moves from one quick number into something slower with a completely different change of atmosphere,” Price said.

“I’m pretty confident people will leave being able to hum a couple of bars from any of the songs in there, and they probably will,” Price said.

Tickets for the play, suggested for adults and children 12 and older, cost $5 for the preview and $15 ($12 for seniors ages 62 and over, children 17 and younger, and SUNY Oswego faculty and staff; $7 for SUNY Oswego students) for the regular run.

Tickets are available at all SUNY Oswego box offices, online at and by calling 312-2141. Parking is free in campus lots on evenings and weekends for those attending “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

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PHOTO CAPTION: A leg up—“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” promises a rousing night of music and comedy, as one speller, SUNY Oswego theatre major Nathan Keep, center, shows his “magic foot” spelling technique to, from left, fellow spellers Jaclyn Mienkiewicz, Erik Shuler, Dylan Duffy, Jessica Quindlen (in eyeglasses), Jennifer Pratt, Aaron Londraville and “comfort counselor” Ariel Marcus.

(Posted: Sep 26, 2011)

Tags: theatre, theater, music