Press release

Tony Award-Winning Spelling Bee Opens at UC Davis

UC Davis Department of Theatre & Dance presents The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Beewhere six teens battle for glory with songs including “I’m Not That Smart,” “The I Love You Song,“ and “Pandemonium.”  The competition is riotously out of control with supernatural trances, magic body parts, ulterior motives, and peer and parental pressure.The 2005 Broadway production was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two.This heartwarming musical with live orchestra captures the carefree spirit of youth while bringing out the nerd in all of us.

Director/Choreographer Mindy Cooper has twice held the title of UC Davis Granada Artist-in-Residence.  Her successful stagings of Oklahoma!  at Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall and Urinetown: The Musical  at Main Theatre reflect her extensive Broadway background as director, choreographer, and performer. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opens on Thursday, September 16, and plays through Sunday, September 25, at Main Theatre, UC Davis.

This delightfully quirky musical comedyoccurs in geographically ambiguous Putnam County.  There in a junior high auditorium, six pubescent misfits learn that winning isn’t everything and that defeat doesn’t necessarily make you a loser.

The colorful characters include: reigning champ Chip Tolentino who has every intention of taking gold if his hormones will allow it; Leaf Coneybear, the home-schooled savant who makes his own clothes; Olive Ostrosky who worries that her toughest rival will push her out of spelling altogether, while hoping that her mother will someday come see her spell; and Vice-Principal Panch who has returned to the competition after a long hiatus and apologizes for the “incident” at his last bee.

This tale of overachievers’ angst while vying for the spelling championship of a lifetime is told through hilarious and charming song lyrics.  Musical Director and UC Davis faculty member Pete Nowlen comments, “The lyrics are incredibly clever and cleverly set.  Each speller has a beautiful personal song that reveals some important part of their character. William Finn is one of the greatest living composers for the stage. Finn is a master of character development in song, and we end up LOVING each of these characters for their qualities and their flaws.”

In “My Friend the Dictionary” we learn about Olive’s lonely childhood where her main source of companionship (and spelling excellence) was a dictionary. Chip bemoans the fact that his sexual arousal cost him a victory in “My Unfortunate Erection.” Coneybear confesses that his family does not consider him to be particularly intelligent in “I’m Not That Smart.” Finally, through a series of epilogues revealing the fates of the characters, we learn how their experiences during the spelling bee shaped each of their lives.

A large part of the entertainment revolves around audience volunteers who join the competition. These are genuine audience members who have been selected through an interview process before the show.  Local celebrity fun can be expected here.

Director/Choreographer Mindy Cooper notes this as the most interesting part of the show, “Spelling Bee’s roots are from an improv acting company, and thus the show screams for a very in the moment, on your toes (because it can be different every night) kind of focus.  And the show WILL be different each night, because of audience participation and volunteers who play a rather pivotal part.”

“I structured rehearsals to reflect this kind of piece. We started with two weeks of improvising on themes from the show, mock spelling bees, character exploration and relationship all through improv based exercises. By the time we started staging, so much of the work was already developed.”

The cast, composed of UC Davis undergraduates, one alumna (as of September 10) and one recent MFA recipient, appreciate this improvisational freedom.  Senior Esteban Gonzalez, who plays Coneybear, says, “Mindy knows what she wants, but allows our individual interpretations of character.  She permits us to experiment and go for it!  For me, it’s like being a child again.”

James Marchbanks, who received his MFA in Acting last June and portrays both Mitch Mahoney and Dan Dad, came back to UC Davis precisely for this rare opportunity to work with Mindy.  “She has taught me that nothing is ever wrong in creative choices; to always take chances for the best possible results.”

Rounding out The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’s creative artist team are UC Davis faculty member Thomas J. Munn (Lighting Designer), Costume Shop Director Roxanne Femling (Costume Designer), and students Karyn Noel (Scenic Designer) and Daniel Jordan (Properties Designer). Undergraduate Maria Castro serves as Stage Manager.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Beeis the culminationof the brand newUC Davis Musical Theatre Summer Intensive. The program, led by industry professionals, provides seven weeks of professional training in musical theatre. College credit is not only available for UC Davis students, but for certain high school students and non-UC Davis college students.

Talkbacks with cast and creative artists will be held after the two Friday performances on September 17 and 24.  Audience members are invited to participate. 

High school and youth groups of ten or more receive a special rate of $10 per ticket at the teacher or group leader’s request. Please call the Publicity Office at (530) 752 -5863 to make arrangements for this discount.

For the general population, an order of fifteen or more tickets for a single performance receives a 10% discount. Groups of 25 or more receive a 10% discount plus two free tickets.

As once praised by The Wall Street Journal, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is “perfect in every possible way — that rarity of rarities, a super-smart musical that is also a bona fide crowd pleaser.”

Music and lyrics are by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin.  The show was conceived by Rebecca Feldman with additional material Jay Reiss. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was originally produced on Broadway by David Stone, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitman, and Patrick Catullo.

This prduction is rated PG-13.

Faculty Biographies

Mindy Cooper (Director/Choregrapher) A Broadway veteran for over 25 years, Mindy Cooper began her career as a performer dancing in the companies of Twyla Tharp Dance, The Feld Ballet, The Kansas City Ballet, and Thingsezis Chicago, the original cast ofTitanic, and Beauty and the Beast, Song & Dance, and Tenderloin.  Her extensive director/choreographer credits include: Broadway – Dracula, the Musical and Wrong Mountain.; Off-Broadway - Five Course Love; national tour –Titanic; New York credits- The Gospel According to Tammy Faye (Manhattan Theater Club, Staged Reading), Music In The Night, A Tribute To Jerome Kern (Town Hall); Regional Theater – On The Town (Lesher Center), Cabaret ( Center Rep), Oklahoma! (Mondavi Performing Arts Center), Musical Of Musicals, The Musical (Center Rep), Fiddler On The Roof ( Nevada Conservatory Theater), Urinetown: The Musical ( UC Davis), The New Bozena ( Hudson Theater LA), Heart And Soul ( St. Petersburg, Russia), Fair Liberty’s Call ( world premiere), and Jesus Christ Superstar (Pittsburg CLO). She has choreographed numerous benefits, industrials, and commercials, as well as for “Law & Order Criminal Intent.”

Her Bay Area Theatrical work has won a total of ten Bay Area Theater Critics Awards, including 2009 Best Director of a Musical and 2009 Best Musical.  She has been honored as UC Davis Granada Artist-in-Residence three times: spring 2007, spring 2009 and upcoming spring 2011.

Thomas J. Munn  (Lighting Designer) is an internationally recognized designer specializing in lighting.  He has designed for theatre, opera, ballet, television, videos and industrials.  A graduate of Boston University, he made his Broadway debut in 1974 designing scenery for Brightower by Dore Schary.   An all class member of United Scenic Artists Local 829, he has been an active scenic artist as well as a designer.  He served as Lighting Designer/Director for San Francisco Opera from 1976 through 2000, creating scenic and/or lighting and special effects for over 250 productions including the The Wagner Ring Cycle, the Emmy-nominated televised world premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire (Projection Design and Lighting) and his Emmy Award-winning work on La Gioconda with Luciano Pavoratti. Both scenic and lighting design credits include productions of  Candide, Salome, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,  Roberto Devereux, Pelleas et Melisande, Nabucco, Billy Budd, Don Giovanni and Christophe Colomb. Lighting Director credits for PBS television include the LA Opera video of The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny; Dangerous Liaisons, Samson et Delilah, La Bohème, Aida, and Turandot.  Recent designs of note include lighting designs for the Pioneer Theatre Company-The Yellow Leaf, Julius Caesar, Beauty and The Beast; Mefistofele for Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy; and productions for Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, Boston Lyric Opera and Portland Opera. For UC Davis: Nest, Urinetown:The Musical, Carmen, Big Love and Rocky Horror Picture Show .  As lighting consultant he has worked on prestigious projects such as the renovated War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, Het Musiktheatre in Amsterdam, the Netherlands and St. Marks Lutheran Church in San Francisco.  Munn is currently Professor of Lighting at UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance.

Pete Nowlen (Music Director) has been a member of the UC Davis faculty since 1988 and the California State University, Sacramento, faculty since 1990. He was a member of the French horn section of the Sacramento Symphony from 1987 until its bankruptcy in 1996. He is an active orchestral and chamber musician and an international solo prize winner. He performs frequently with the San Francisco Symphony, Opera, and Ballet orchestras; Symphony Silicon Valley; the Sacramento Philharmonic, Opera, and Chamber Music Society; and Music Circus and plays as principal hornist of the Music in the Mountains Festival and Arizona Musicfest. For several years, he performed regularly as principal hornist of the International Orchestra of Italy, performing and recording in Italy’s finest theaters. In 1992 he was third-prize winner of the International Competition for Solo Horn of the Castle of Duino, Italy, and in 1994 he was a semifinalist in the prestigious American Horn Competition. Solo appearances have included both American and Italian orchestras.

Opera and ballet and theatre conducting credits include La Boheme, Hansel und Gretel, Billy the Kid, L’Histoire du Soldat, Facade, and Company. Orchestral conducting credits include the Sacramento Symphony, UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, CSUS Symphony Orchestra, and the Music in the Mountains Orchestra. Nowlen has been interim band director at UC Davis since 2002 and director of the fall quarter Wind Ensemble since 1993.

This is his sixth UC Davis production, having previously been music director for Little Shop of Horrors, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Falsettos, Urinetown: The Musical, and Man of La Mancha.

What: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Beedirected and choreographed by Mindy Cooper. Six teens battle for glory in a competition that is hilariously out of control. This heartwarming Tony Award-winning musical captures the carefree spirit of youth while bringing out the nerd in all of us. This production is rated PG-13.

Where: Main Theatre, UC Davis

When: Thurs – Sat, Sept 16 – 18 & Sept 23 – 25, 8pm; Sun, Sept 19, & 26, 2pm

Tickets: General $18 advance, $22 door; Students/children/seniors $15 advance, $20 door

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