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Kahilu Theatre presents ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’

The cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” poses for a photo. (COURTESY PHOTO)
The cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” poses for a photo. (COURTESY PHOTO)

The Kahilu Theatre’s season continues with the musical comedy, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Six teenage misfits take the stage Jan. 11 and 12 as they vie for the coveted title of Spelling Bee Champion. The competition is intense and the words are outrageous. The students are supervised by a group of three adults who themselves act like college co-eds. Together they learn that winning isn’t everything and that losing isn’t the end of the world.

This Tony-award winning show was a hit with critics and audiences alike on Broadway. It is praised for its charming cast, hilarious script, and catchy musical numbers. The hit musical received accolades for its group of unlikely heroes who perceive the county spelling bee as the only place where they can stand out and fit in at the same time. Both poignant and satirical, the musical comedy offers a hilarious reflection of the difficulty and angst of early teenage years.

“I chose this musical because it was really popular on Broadway,” said director Beth Bornstein Dunnington. “It won six Tony Awards and it’s probably the most popular, recent Broadway show for community productions. One of the things I like about it is that it includes volunteers who come up from the audience. We have spellers who are part of the musical, and then we have four audience members who come up and actually spell in the spelling bee. We thought it would be great fun for our first musical in 21 years to have something that involved the audience.”

Audience participation is indeed one of the hallmarks of this musical. Four pre-selected audience volunteers join the cast each evening to compete in the spelling bee. Introducing this element of unpredictability puts the cast’s improvisational skills to the test. The audience volunteers must spell and remain onstage until they have misspelled a word.

According to director Dunnington, the musical offers far more than just a few laughs. The musical artistically captures the anxiety and longing of early adolescence, when young teens hunger for recognition, validation, and a sense of belonging. The play pays homage to all of the outsiders, misfits, and overachievers. It also teaches some valuable life lessons.

“Winning isn’t everything,” said Dunnington. “It’s about kindness, cooperation, and community. It deals with teasing and competition. We can learn to not judge a book by its cover. We learn that although someone may appear one way, what’s actually going on underneath is completely different. There’s a deep side to each one of these characters. It’s a musical comedy — it’s a lot of fun.”

Dunnington describes the uniqueness of each character as something the audience will relate to.

“All the characters want something different,” she said. “I think the play addresses all of our longings and fears. We fall in love with these characters and we track them through their journey. I think everyone can relate to that. There are six spellers and they’re all unique. I think everyone will relate to at least one of them.”

Under Dunnington’s direction, the Kahilu theatre’s production brings together some of the Big Island’s best talent, including Eliana Kaplan (Olive), Daniel Gregg (Barfee), Harmony Graziano (Panch), HanaSara Ito (Logainne), Caylin Kojima (rehearsal pianist), Sophie Dommer (Marcy), Marena Faye Dunnington (Rona), Aidan F Wharton (Chip), Leilani Bostock (Madge), Sean Dunnington (Leaf), Maia Tarnas (costume designer), and recent Ovation Award winner, Taylor Stephenson (musical director).

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is the first musical to be performed at the Kahilu Theatre in more than 20 years. “The Kahilu was built by Richard Smart as a venue for musicals and plays, but his passion was musical theatre,” Dunnington said. “Smart was a musical theatre performer on Broadway. He died in the early ‘90s and there hasn’t been a musical produced by the Kahilu since 1991. The new Kahilu has opened with a commitment to the community and I think the community will enjoy this production. It’s a lot of fun.”

Show times are Saturday, Jan. 11, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 12, at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $10 to $25. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.kahilutheatre.org.