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Musical cast
The cast of Bluffton University’s May Day-weekend musical may not be complete until minutes before the curtain rises on opening night May 5. And even then, the contestants in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" won’t stay the same the next two nights.

But that’s just the nature of the "Bee."

The selection of four "guest spellers" from the audience before each performance is the most obvious indication of the musical comedy’s improvisational quality. Throw in the freedom for unscripted "color commentary" about the guest spellers, topical and local references and nightly changes in the sometimes bizarre words posed to the participants, and the show, says Dr. Melissa Friesen, the director, is unlike any other she’s done in her nine years at Bluffton.

The university’s production of the Tony Award-winning "Spelling Bee" runs from May 5-7 in Founders Hall. Curtain time is 8 p.m. nightly; tickets, $13 for reserved seats and $5.50 for bleacher seats, are available online at, or by contacting the box office at 419-358-3239 or

Every performance of any play is slightly different, notes Friesen, an associate professor and chair of communication and theatre at Bluffton. "In this show, it’s built in," she adds, saying "the show comes out of an improvisational process" in which the original actors and design team helped create the characters and dialogue.

Bluffton students will portray the six quirky, overachieving junior high school students competing for the chance to attend the National Spelling Bee. The four guest spellers joining them won’t be randomly called from the audience, Friesen stresses, but rather pre-selected, probably through a combination of lining up some further in advance and getting others via quick conversations to determine their willingness to participate as they enter Founders. The 12 people involved over three nights are likely to include Bluffton faculty and staff and well-known community members the audience can connect with, and root for, she says.

The guest spellers will be told to go to the microphone when their names are called. When they are given a word, they will ask, as at a regular spelling bee, for a definition and the use of the word in a sentence—which won’t be like those at a regular bee, the director says. From there, she continues, the instruction for the actual spelling is "try to do your best."

The guests will change the character of the show, Friesen says. If they decide to dance or make jokes, for instance, the cast members must respond in character, adding "a whole other level of energy" to the production, she explains. The actors will rehearse with students from Bluffton’s Theatre Activity class to practice acting with people who haven’t rehearsed for their roles.

Needing to be the most responsive in dealing with the guest spellers, says Friesen, are two adult characters, Rona Lisa Perretti and Vice Principal Panch, played by seniors Sarah Diller of Bluffton, Ohio, and Aaron Yost of Pinetop, Ariz., respectively.

As "host" of the bee, Rona Lisa, a realtor reliving her glory days at the event, provides commentary—a sentence or two, or "fun facts"—about the contestants, the director says. Diller, who will know the guests in advance, has a list of possible descriptions, as well as discretion to make something up based on a visual cue or a local reference, for example.

As Panch, meanwhile, Yost will pronounce the words, choosing from a list of 50 possibilities, many of them unusual, in the script. "We will be increasing our vocabulary by doing this show," Friesen predicts.

Julie Andrews was a guest speller on Broadway, where the "Mary Poppins" star missed "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

The script also allows creation of speeches for some of the characters, including a politically active 12-year-old girl who gives a speech that can incorporate topical references. Updating and localizing that monologue is part of the production process, says Friesen, who points out that the show considers how adolescents deal with their "outsider" status when intelligence sets them apart from peers.

Creating the unscripted moments in the "Bee" is "nerve-racking," she admits, acknowledging her desire as director for control. "It’s a definite challenge," she says. But the energy and collaboration involved is fun, she adds, saying it’s "tremendously rewarding to work with creative students."

Other plays have a mix of script and improvisation, "but this is pretty unusual for a musical," Friesen notes. Similarly, she says, theatre is always inspired by the qualities and experiences that cast—and design team—members bring to bear, "but to the extent that this musical encourages and, in fact, requires, improvisation, that is unique."


Bluffton public relations, 4/18/11