For weeks, the cast and crew of the Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee have been carefully preparing. Songs have been learned, lines memorized and characters developed -- all so when the curtain rises Friday night, they can wing it.
As much a theatrical experiment as a traditional musical, Putnam County stages a middle school spelling bee, with songs and students played by adults. The challenge comes from a quartet of guest spellers pulled from the audience and improvisational freedom given to Wes Hennings, who plays Vice Principal Panch. The show is formatted so that misspelled words might cue a song, the success or failure of guest spellers might alter the course of the narrative, and the songs, rather than progressing the plot, offer character background.
"You do a lot of preparing and you still don't know what you'll get," Hennings said.
The Fort Gordon production will be the first time Putnam County has been performed in the Augusta area. Director Steve Walpert said he knew it was a show that he wanted to do and do first.
"I got notified that the rights had been made available one evening after rehearsal and the next morning I had secured them for the Dinner Theatre," he said.
Jordan Blaine, who plays the cape-sporting son of former hippie Leaf Coneybear, said that while spelling bees might not be unusually interesting, Putnam County succeeds because the bee serves as a platform for introducing interesting characters.
"It works because we are not ordinary kids," he said. "Between us, we make a very interesting mix -- and the adults just add to it."
Putnam County is staged in one continuous act. The idea is to present it as an actual spelling bee rather than a performance.
Katie Reagan said the gambit can be challenging for the actors. "It's not something we're used to," she said. "You really do have to focus on being in character all the time."
Elizabeth Miller, who plays the improbably named Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, said the appeal of Putnam County is that it is, in many ways, a perfect distillation of live theater's appeal.
"This is essence of live theater," she said. "Because you never know what will happen. It's always a different show."