When an eclectic group of six mid-pubescents vie for the spelling championship of a lifetime, they candidly disclose hilarious and touching stories from their home lives. The tweens spell their way through a series of (potentially made-up) words, hoping never to hear the soul-crushing, pout-inducing, life un-affirming “ding” of the bell that signals a spelling mistake. Six spellers enter; one speller leaves a champion! That’s the premise of this fun musical tale of competition, and so the rivalry begins—with others, as well as within themselves. Director Ralph Bruno portrays Jesus, on hand to offer advice as only He can.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has been around since 2004. The 2005 Broadway version was nominated for six Tony Awards and picked up two. Academy Player’s house manager Frank O’Donnell is pleased to be portraying the role of Panch for the third time. “I love the role!” he says. “This show is a Heavenly Gingers fundraiser. The term is an umbrella name for the Keri Anne O’Donnell Memorial Fund and Jessie’s Dream. We lost Keri (age 15) in 2010 in a car accident, and we lost Jessie (age 20) in 2008 to ovarian cancer. Both girls were fiery redheads—you know, Gingers— who absolutely loved performing. Both were primarily dancers, but they could sing and act as well. Put simply, they had a passion for performance.”
Since their passing, the O’Donnell and Morris families have made it their mission to help other youngsters who have a similar passion for performance. Scholarships and grants from these funds help young performers afford dance classes, acting and music lessons, and more. Each year, they provide memorial scholarships to their respective alma maters—North Providence High School and Lincoln High School. Doing shows as Heavenly Gingers fundraisers was the brainchild of Allii Fontaine, who portrays Rona Lisa Perretti.
“She approached John and me, and then the Academy, several years ago, wondering if we’d be okay with them doing Godspell as a fundraiser,” says O’Donnell. “We of course said yes. That was followed up with Tuck: Everlasting—which was interrupted by COVID, but finally presented. And now we’ve got Spelling Bee. We have two sets of spellers, as well as two Panches,” says O’Donnell. “What’s pretty cool—did I say that already?—is that most of the cast are young people who’ve received scholarships or grants from one or both funds. We’ve wanted to showcase the level of talent found among our recipients, and this is the perfect opportunity.”
The contestants each have their own quirks, and don’t always tolerate each other well. (After all, it is a competition!) The mood swings as there’s anticipation, home-life struggles that interfere with the thinking mechanism, the joy of triumph each round, and the agony of defeat. Brianna Geyer portrays Mitch Mahoney, who has the arduous task of walking losing contestants off stage, offering them an apple-juice box as a comforting consolation prize. Jeffrey Gonzalez is Leaf Coneybear, a lively participant who owns the stage. All performers have strong vocal ability, including O’Donnell who portrays Doug Panch as well as Olive’s dad. Actors in week one are not necessarily the same actors who perform week two.
“I just love that we’re able to showcase the talents of these amazing young performers. And they have put so much into creating the characters and getting everything just right. There’s a real family atmosphere here, and I think it translates nicely for the audience,” says O’Donnell. “Ray Santos is our music director, and he’s amazing. He’s been with us throughout the rehearsal process, working on all the songs with all the singers. And he picks the band.”
Nicholas Bruno on the alto and soprano saxes is the son of the show’s director. Kudos to Kayla-Rose O’Donnell for her clever choreography, as well as Jaydon Geyer and Amaya Moniz for their skillful handling of sounds and light.
The show also features a celebrity speller in each performance. These include Kim Kalunian Nesi, Bekah Berger, Ron and Pete Cardi, Mario Hilario and Barbara Morse, Brendan Kirby, Frank Carpano, Chelsea Priest, and Kelly Bates, who graciously donated homemade bracelets for sale at the shows.
O’Donnell can’t thank the Academy Players enough for being extremely supportive of the two families and their fundraising efforts. The concession area is called Keri’s Koncessions, which they named for Keri as a present for O’Donnell’s 60th birthday as they were building the new theater space. The Jessie’s Dream logo is painted on the wall next to the concession stand as well. Anyone wishing to donate for Heavenly Gingers can do so at www.kerisfund.org. Just be sure to note that it’s for Heavenly Gingers for proper accounting please!
Spelling Bee runs through September 17. For more info, visit AcademyPlayersRI.org or call (401) 830-0880.