Friday, January 28, 2011

Backstage with *Spelling Bee* cast members

Posted on Fri, Jan 28, 2011 at 6:58 PM

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opens tonight at the Civic's Studio Theater. Here are Q&A interviews (conducted by e-mail and lightly edited) with two cast members: first, Lance Babbitt as William Barfee (he of the "Magic Foot") and then, Maureen Kumakura as Rona Lisa Peretti (the spelling bee hostess in this musical -- currently a real-estate agent, but still wrapped up in her fond memories of past spelling bee victories).

Inlander: So what's your story? Give us the bio, Lance.

Lance Babbitt: I grew up in Idaho and did CdA Summer Theater from the ages of 12 to 18. (This was when the theater was in what is now Lake City Playhouse.) That was a great experience — 70 shows in rep, can't be beat. I went to college in Pullman — Go, Cougs! — and I had the best teacher in Paul Wadleigh.  Then, after moving back here a few years ago, I was ready to dip my toe again in the local theater scene. And the Civic has been very welcoming.

What specifically are you doing to make Barfee other than a stereotypical nerd?
I work very hard to make him well rounded. I think he has become a bully — because of being bullied! He really connects with no one at first — he just wants to spell, because that is his comfort zone

Any choreography on the Magic Foot? In other words, are you really "spelling," or just sort of waving your feet around?
I do spell the word HASENPFEFFER. Not sure any experts on penmanship would approve — but yes, I do spell!

For musical numbers like "Magic Foot" and "Pandemonium," tell me about how you're performing/dancing/delivering that number differently now than you would have supposed going into rehearsals. That is, how has the rehearsal shaped your performance?
"Magic Foot" took shape rather quickly, though with lots of fine tuning. But Kathie [Doyle-Lipe, the director] really got it — [she understood] what Barfee would do. "Pandemonium" has evolved a lot. Kathie staged it very early, because of the sheer stamina the number takes. We have gotten more comfortable with it as time has gone on. My personal thought is that we have become more and more childlike as the number has evolved.

Late in the rehearsal process, shows are often ready and "just need an audience." Is that doubly or triply true for this show, or not?
Very, very true...we have been lucky to have people come in and _spell_ with us. But the energy that this show has and requires ... needs an audience!

What specific moments in the show present a temptation to be too silly? too sentimental?  Or are there none like that?
I think the whole show could easily wander down those paths. But we have worked really hard to make these kids real, albeit funny.   

Inlander: The audience-participation spellers vary every night. Do the sarcastic introductions also vary? How much improv are you and Greg Pschirrer (as the vice principal) prepared to do?

Maureen Kumakura: Greg and I are prepared to improv as much as necessary. We've come up with a number of comments for people that can be customized to different individuals based on what they're wearing, etc. The show has to move pretty quickly, so sometimes there just isn't time to come up with something brand-new for each contestant, but we will be doing our best to keep it fresh and make sure it varies from night to night.

Does Rona Lisa see herself in Olive Ostrovsky? How and why? Does that imply that Rona Lisa's parents also neglected her?
I do not personally feel that Rona had the same sad childhood as Olive; I see their connection as one based more on the love of language and spelling. I suspect Rona probably toted her dictionary around as a child just as Olive does and often considered it one of her best friends in the world. Rona relates to the love and affection for the bee that she also sees in Olive - they share the same passion. I think there is almost something a little parental that kicks in with Rona when she starts to realize just how unfortunate Olive's situation is. I don't think Rona really understands how bad it is until she takes the phone call from Olive's dad in the middle of the bee. In that moment, she is faced with something totally foreign to her - a parent who seems to care very little for his child or for the amazing accomplishment she has achieved.  That anyone could have such little interest in their child — or the spelling bee, for that matter — is, in Rona's eyes, almost unfathomable. 

How much of this show, in your opinion, is about accepting other people's flaws and insecurities?
I think acceptance is a tremendously strong theme throughout this show. As each child is introduced, it becomes clear that each one is unique, from they way they look and dress to the different reasons as to how they all got there and why they want or have to win. Each of them have their own struggles and issues to work through, but they discover that they are connected by this one common thing that has brought them together.
Even the adults in the show learn to accept some of their own and each others' issues and see the goodness that is lurking underneath sometimes tough and/or misunderstood exteriors.  The good thing is, this is mostly done mostly through humor — it's not as psychoanalytically intense as I've made it sound.

Is "My Favorite Moment of the Bee" also your favorite song in the show? How will you vary it from first use through the two reprises?
Actually, I prefer the "I Love You Song," which, although incredibly sad, is just a really beautiful composition.
Rona's moments are funny, because they resemble when someone is introducing their favorite movie to someone who's never seen it before and every few minutes, she's exclaiming, "Oh, this is my favorite part... no, wait, _this_ is my favorite!"
With Rona, I believe her favorite moment comes at the end - the eventual crowning of the spelling bee champion - but she honestly just loves everything about the entire process.  Each time she sings "My Favorite Moment" tends to be bigger. There is a build that happens with each one as her excitement grows, but the final moment is noticeably bigger than the other two ... I hope.

For the show in general, what's the most complicated musical or dance number? And the most enjoyable?
The most complicated group number has to be second half of "Magic Foot," when the entire cast joins William Barfee in praising the wonders of his miraculous spelling foot. There's a spectacular lift at the end that definitely took a little bit longer to perfect than most of the other numbers — but when we nail it, it's worth all the effort.
The most enjoyable number would have to be "Pandemonium." It's a great high-energy song in which we all get to go a little crazy. And we get to involve unsuspecting audience members in the chaos, too!

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