Confessions of a “guest speller”

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE cast on stage designed like a school auditorium.
(L to R) Sumi Yu; Sammy Pignalosa; Jordan Matthew Brown; Angel Lin; Coleman Cummings; & Lila Coogan in THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

How I got to appear onstage at The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

For those of you unfamiliar with the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, four “guest spellers” join the cast onstage and try their hand at spelling the challenging words with the six cast members who compete in the bee. It’s fun to try to spell words like “mizzle,” and “cow,” and “otorhinolaryngologist.” The audience gets a good laugh out of one’s attempts while being secretly glad they’re not up there on stage.

If you misspell the word, a bell rings, and the unlucky contestant is shown off the stage to a goodbye song, clutching a juice box.

The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick is putting on Spelling Bee, and the call went out to the Playhouse staff for volunteers to act as guest spellers when needed. So it came to pass that I volunteered, innocently enough. I was a little surprised when I was asked if I could appear at the matinee performance on Thursday, March 22 — but not so surprised that I didn’t jump at the invitation.

Thursday afternoon arrived soon enough, and I reported to the Guest Spellers’ registration station in the lobby to check-in. Sarah, another George Street employee, gave me the basics. Six volunteers had been invited, of which four would have their names called to come up from the audience onto the stage. I would have to submit a test result from a COVID-19 test taken less than six days before the performance or submit to a test given in a secluded section of the lobby. I did the latter. 

The cast members would be leading me and the other guest spellers through the show by giving us whispered verbal or tactile cues for action. When called up to spell a word, we were allowed to ask two questions:  “What is the definition of the word?” and “Can you use the word in a sentence?” A correct spelling meant we could go back into the bleachers to await our next turn. An incorrect one, however, meant that we would hear the ding of a small bell, followed by the correct spelling of the word, upon which the cast would sing a goodbye song and the unlucky speller would be given a juice box by comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (actor Aaron Michael Ray) and guided off the stage and back into the audience. 

Above all, we were told to relax and just be ourselves. As my friends might say, that’s an unpredictably dangerous thing to say to me.

As luck would have it, my name was called as the first to go up. I was given a contestant’s number by bee judge Rona Lisa Perretti (Ally Bonino) and seated behind William Barfée (Jordan Matthew Brown) and Olive Ostrovsky (Lila Coogan), with Marcy Park (Sumi Yu) behind me as my performance guide. After the first couple of cast member spellers, my name was called to approach the microphone for my first word. Unfortunately for me, it was “zuuzuu,” a word I had never heard before. I made the error of asking to have the word repeated, then asked for the sentence and the definition. I spelled it with single “u”s instead of double “u”s, and Ding! I heard the cast singing “Goodbye” as Mitch gave me a juice box in exchange for my contestant’s number, and directing me to the stairs, down which I went back into the audience to the sound of applause.

Thus ended my acting career in professional New Jersey stage productions. Oh, well, to be the first guest speller to be called up, the first guest speller to be given a word, and the first guest speller to be shot down in defeat wasn’t all that bad. And with a little refrigeration, the juice box wasn’t, either.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through April 9. 2023. It is presented by the George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Read Allen Neuner’s review here.