BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. — After weeks of virtual rehearsals, followed by more in-person rehearsals, the curtain rose last weekend on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The New Providence High School Spring Musical opened last weekend and there will be three more performances of the musical this weekend, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 30, and Saturday, May 1, and at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 1. Seating is limited to 150 people per performance due to COVID-19 restrictions. Tickets are still available and can be purchased online, by clicking on the announcement on the district’s website.

TAPinto visited with members of the cast, its director, choreographer and stage manager over Zoom Tuesday afternoon. With three successful shows under their belt, everyone was excited to be able to return to the stage for another three performances of the musical comedy. 

Craig Duke, who was the show’s producer, director and responsible for scenic design, provided some background on the process of bringing the show to opening night. It wasn’t easy. Last year’s musical was canceled after just one show because of COVID-19. When it was time to choose a new show for this year, Duke said he, Choreographer Leslie Ditta and Music Director Caitlin Alongi sat down and chose “something small and planned on doing the show outdoors.” They applied for funding to set up a stage, which was not granted, but they had all the plans in place for an outdoor show, from quotes for lighting from vendors, a land survey and more. “We were full bore for being outside,” and looking forward to it because the size of the audience would not be limited, he said.

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Then the requirements changed “just one month before we were to do the first performance,” he said. 

Ditta said, “The show must go on,” and so they switched plans and prepared for an on-stage production. 

It was a short time frame and Duke said they worked on the set right up until opening night. The set was complete, but it was “not painted until moments before the curtain opened,” he said. 

Because it was a small show, Ditta said “compared to other shows we’ve done, it’s not a very large dance show,” but there are musical numbers and the traditional “kick line.” The music is eclectic. One has a “gospel revival feel,” and another has a “head-pop, stomp section,” which is being done “a cappella,” Ditta said.   

For those who don’t know the story, the action takes place during a fictional spelling bee in the equally fictional Putnam Valley Middle School. Each of the six students who qualified for the bee are unique, “quirky” is the word that was used when the cast members were asked to describe their characters. 

Ditta said the biggest difference between this show and others is “how much each character’s movement was important to the show.” Each of the characters is unique and “all have their own quirks.” She said it was fun to watch the performers as they tried to get rid of their own personal quirks and gestures. “We all have our own,” while trying to develop new quirks.

Stage Manager Priscilla Senger, a senior, described her role as being the “connection between the cast and the crew.” She takes notes and makes sure “everything is on track.”  Not an easy thing to do when there were virtual rehearsals, and the music and choreography was being coordinated remotely. Last year she was assistant stage manager — this year was much harder, in part because of COVID, she said.

Duke praised Senger for the job she did this year. “Priscilla has been there from Day 1, when she coordinated the auditions.” She also was at every rehearsal, including the first virtual rehearsals. “She has seen it all from the very beginning,” he said.

Senger said “I am incredibly proud of the work of the cast and crew. We’ve never done six shows ... or rehearsed on Zoom or dealt with a pandemic. Despite all the obstacles, “we put on an incredible show which is still up to our standards.”

Samantha Molle plays Logainne “Schwartzy” Schwartzandgrubenierre, one of the contestants in the spelling bee. She was in the ensemble in the school's production of Chicago and Little Shop Of Horrors. “This is the biggest role I’ve ever had,” she said. 

The junior said the best part of her character, “Schwartzy,” is her “attitude and personality. She is fun and energetic,” and stays that way throughout the show, “which is why I auditioned for her.” Schwartzy’s quirk is “standing up straight,” something she was pressured to do by her parents.

Duke said Schwartzy also has a lisp which Molle “adopted convincingly.”

Molle said was not easy to do but now that she has mastered it, “it’s fun to use it,” she said. As do most of the spellers, “Logainne has her little quirk, she writes her letters on her arm. So, when I portray Schwartzy on stage I spell out the real words,” she said.

Zachary Pereira, who plays Leaf Coneybear, described his character as “energetic with a weird side to him,” and said Leaf had “unfiltered, childish energy … he is always jumping and having a big reaction.”  Leaf reminded Pereira of himself, “I was kind of a crazy child.” 

A sophomore, he is not a novice actor “I’ve been doing theater since the sixth grade,” starting with the New Providence Recreation Theater program acting class. He was part of the musical Seussical Jr., and has been in high school musicals and plays. And, he hopes to do more in theater — especially musical theater.

Leda Rossman plays Rona Lisa Peretti, whom she described as “the leader of the bee … who wants to be the mom of all the spellers.” She said she was listening to the cast album before she started the audition process, and “liked her song the best.”  

Rossman was in “Cats” at AW Roberts Theater Week, played Snoopy one year, and has pretty much been involved in theater, especially musical theater, before high school. She said, “I don’t know if acting will always be in my future, I will always be singing — professionally or not.” 

Kathleen Newcombe plays Marcy Park, who is between 11 and 12 years old. Her character “claims to be not all business, but she is all business,” she said. She is also very confident in herself, but doesn’t think she is better than everyone one, “she knows, for a fact she is — her thing is being good at everything,” said Newcombe. Also, she is bored with always winning, which is a key element in the story.

Newcombe said, “I’ve been doing theater for as long as I can remember, beginning with New Providence Recreation in second or third grade.” She was in all the shows until eighth grade, then at other places, including Summit Playhouse one summer.  She would like to make theater her life, but knows how difficult it is to succeed. She is choosing between two colleges, each with programs that would support her acting and musical goals.

She said this show was “pretty significant,” because it is the first time she was picked to be “the lead in a musical … I’ve always been confident in my acting abilities, but not as confident in my singing ability.” 

Scott Regan has the role of William Barfee, another one of the spellers. Barfee, who is about 12, has his own quirk, he spells his words in a quite distinctive way, “he goes into trance, and using his 'magic foot,' writes the word on the floor before he spells it out,” Regan said. 

This is Regan’s first show, normally he is part of the stage crew. He was head of the crew for Clue and Little Shop of Horrors, so “being out on stage is a bit of a different experience. He said he had to learn to have a “lot of presence on stage, how to project my voice,” and other acting skills.  While he enjoys acting, and would be “happy to do it in some form later, probably not as a career,” he said.