Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Musical gaining a lot of buzz around town

Summit City show opening July 28 at The Charles

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be at The Charles from July 28-31.

Published July 20, 2022

If you need it spelled out for you: Summit City Music Theatre’s latest production is sure to be a comedic delight.

Opening on Thursday, July 28, and running through Sunday, July 31, the theater company will present The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at The Charles on Carroll Road.

Putnam County Spelling Bee has been on my list for quite some time,” director Gavin Thomas Drew said in an email response. “It has a heavy improvisational aspect, so the show is a little different every time it is performed. It’s a lot of fun!”

Revisiting old roles

Featuring a cast of nine, Putnam County Spelling Bee centers on six mid-pubescents seeking to be the last speller standing, while also sharing stories about their lives along the way.

“This cast is incredible,”  said Drew, who also teaches creative drama at Fort Wayne Youtheatre. “Each one is so funny and nuanced in their performance. They are also some of the strongest singers I have ever worked with.”

Among the actors in the production are Fort Wayne natives Michael Bartkiewicz, playing Leaf Coneybear, the son of hippie parents, and Ella Nagel, portraying tentative newcomer to the spelling bee Olive Ostrovsky.

This will be the second time veteran actor Bartkiewicz, who spent 10 years living in New York, has been in Putnam County Spelling Bee, while it’s the third for Nagel, who actually just completed the play at Elon University in North Carolina before coming home for the summer.

“I loved all of the people that were auditioning and all the people I could do the show with, from directing and running the show,” Nagel said about deciding to audition. “I played a different character last time (at Elon), but the same as the first time I did the show (at Carroll High School). It’s kind of cool being able to play a different character, then getting to go back and play the first again.”

Filling out the cast of spellers is Emersen Conner, Caleb Cox, Isaac Knudsen, and Marcy Park. Playing adults in the production will be Mindy Cox, Jason McKinney, and Christopher Spalding. Ren Moore and Madeline Steck are serving as swings.

“We were looking for high school and college students that were up to the task at hand,” Drew said about auditions. “Every one of our actors came to the first rehearsal completely memorized. They only get three weeks to put the show together: that includes running music, blocking the show, and doing all the technical and dress rehearsals.”

For Bartkiewicz, revisiting the musical he last took part in while attending what was then IPFW appealed to him.

“I’m just so attracted to the characters, in general,” he said. “Each character is so individual, and they bring such a cool dynamic to the show. As any actor likes to do, ‘What can we rediscover with these characters?’ ”

Audience participation

And those characters prove to be so much more than spelling enthusiasts.

“You do get some sort of backstory on every character, and they touch on very, very interesting themes,” Bartkiewicz said following a recent rehearsal. “It’s interesting to see these characters come forth, and they are played clichéd, to stereotypes, but they’re deeper than that, and you get to see how they came to be where they are.”

Along with a child of hippies who makes his own clothes, the spellers also include a Boy Scout, an overachiever, a politically aware youth, and one plagued by allergies. With so many different characteristics among the cast, audience members are bound to identify with at least one.

“People can really relate to the characters, with them being so exaggerated, it makes them all the more realistic,” Nagel said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, that is a thing people struggle with.’ It’s just more brought to light than it is in different shows.”

Along with the cast of spellers, audience members will also be called on-stage.

“They get to ‘compete’ with the rest of the spellers, and maybe they’ll win, and maybe they won’t,” Bartkiewicz said. “We’ll see.”

And some of those audience members will be local “celebrities,” with WANE-TV anchor Alyssa Ivanson taking part on opening night, followed by Carroll Middle School Assistant Principal Brian Hill on July 29, and Fort Wayne Youtheatre Associate Director Christopher J. Murphy on July 30.

“They are not prepped in anyway,” Drew said about the guest spellers. “They don’t get the words ahead of time. They are thrown into the show, and expected to keep up with all the insanity that’s going on around them! They don’t even get a rehearsal.”

With so much improvisation, things could get a bit risqué, which might be why the production carries a PG-13 rating.

“There’s a little bit of adult-subject humor, but not a crazy amount,” Nagel said of the show. “There is a pretty blatant song in the show that hints at some more pubescent-type deals.”

Space to play

Founded in 2018, Summit City Music Theatre’s mission is to “make theatre accessible to everyone. From deaf-friendly productions, to sensory-friendly shows.”

“Our goals are to bring professional musicals in plays to the north side of Fort Wayne and train young performers,” said Drew, who is also the company’s artistic director. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is our first show that is a part of our initiative to put on a show every summer that allows young performers to be paired with professional actors and get a professional credit on the résumé.”

The company has staged plays in various locations around town, including Connelly’s Do it Best’s greenhouse on Dupont Road for Little Shop of Horrors in 2019, but enjoy the space The Charles has to offer.

“The Charles is kind of our blank canvas,” Drew said. “It’s an event center and wedding venue, so we kind of get to reconfigure how to do a show. There is no typical proscenium-style stage, so it’s really freeing for me as a director to get to put my own unique intimate twist on each show that we do here.”

Nagel says the simplicity of the show allows for it to be performed just about anywhere, showcased by Elon’s production inside a lecture hall in the spring.

“For this show, I think it works really well, because it is a smaller cast,” she said of The Charles. “Because it’s a spelling bee, you can have it in really obscure, random places, and it always works. You can do them on stages, in gyms, literally anywhere. It works really well in this space.”

Following The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Summit City Music Theatre will hold auditions Sept. 18 for A Christmas Carol at Salomon Farm Park, Dec. 1-11.

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