Actor Eli Branson's experience joining the cast of the new production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," opening today at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., shares a few parallels to what his character William Barfee also endures.
"I was cast for my role much later than the rest of the actors and actresses," said Branson, chatting a week ago, just prior to the first preview performance of the musical comedy.
"So when I spent my first moments meeting the rest of the cast on stage, it had that same feeling of what our character counterparts face being gathered with others in a spotlight and not really knowing what to expect. I knew a couple of other people in the cast, just from some social settings, but none of us have ever worked together before."
Branson, who moved to Chicago in 2009 from Nashville, admits he wasn't all so familiar with this musical, which has played so many stages around Chicagoland, and also Northwest Indiana, including 2013 runs at both Valparaiso University and Theatre at the Center in Munster.
This latest staging at Drury Lane Theatre, part of the legendary dinner theater venue's 30th anniversary season, runs until Aug. 17. Scott Calcagno is directing his version of the Tony Award-winning musical comedy about six competitive kids pitting their brain powers against one another in hopes of bringing home the gold at the annual spelling contest finals.
The rest of the cast, billed as "one of the youngest assembled on the Drury Lane stage," includes Landree Fleming as shy Olive Ostrovsky, and also in the cast of the 2013 Theatre at the Center run, Carolyn Braver plays Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, who is ready to rid the world of social injustice, Jordan DeLeon is cast as boy scout Chip Tolentino, Zack Colonna plays flighty Leaf Coneybear and Stephenie Soohyun Park is driven and all-business Marcy Park. Playing the adults who serve up the words to contestants are Frances Limoncelli as former spelling champ-turned-all-star-Realtor Rona Lisa Peretti, Joe Dempsey as Principal Douglas Panch while Jonathan Butler-Duplessis is cast as juice box-toting Mitch Mahoney, charged with consoling the losers.
There's also another favorite tradition of this show, which first found its success a decade ago when launched Off-Broadway in New York, which provides a chance for the cast of characters to expand at every performance courtesy of audience participation.
"Since we call on members of the audience to come on stage to join us at each performance, there's always a fresh element to the show every time the curtain goes up," Branson said.
"We actually ask for volunteers who are interested in participating to sign-up out in the lobby before the show. So a part of our rehearsals include being prepared for how to handle anything or anyone, once we bring the participants on stage for that part of the performance."
The production team for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" includes Ben Johnson as music director, Jeff Kmiec as scenic designer, Lee Fiskness as lighting designer, Ray Nardelli as sound designer, Nick Heggestad as properties designer and Erika Senase as costume designer.
As for the other parallels for Branson and his character, who suffers from a blocked air passage to one nostril (yet also has the amazing added ability to use his "magic foot" to spell out words on the floor), he said he relates to the pressure of the possibility of misspelling a simple word.
"I can still remember the words that got me eliminated in my own spelling bees from when I was in school," he confessed.
"I left off the 'e' in 'morale' and I also lost out one-time with the word 'appointment.' And now, those are words I will always remember."
However, there's one aspect of his character William Barfee's traits that does NOT ring true to Branson's own weaknesses.
"My character has this severe allergy to peanuts, which I don't have in real life," he said.
"But what's so ironic, is the guy who plays the character in the show who tries to torment me with candy containing peanuts, really does have an allergy to peanuts. So props department had to create special safe fake peanut candy packages."