How do you spell fun? 'Putnam County Spelling Bee'

Theresa DeFranzo

If someone asked you your grandmother’s maiden name, there’s a chance you might not know it. And don’t you get so frustrated when, every now and again, you forget your Ticketmaster password?

But ask someone the word that got her eliminated from her elementary school spelling bee and there isn’t even a bit of hesitation. It’s a word — a moment — you just don’t forget.

Just ask Sally Wilfert. She was in the fourth grade when she misspelled the word “advertisement.”

“I the left the ‘e’ out,” she recalled. “I remember thinking that I was so bummed out and then I was so embarrassed.”

It’s those two emotions, in part, that Wilfert will bring with her to the North Shore Music Theatre stage as she portrays spelling bee coordinator Rona Lisa Perretti in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” running through Aug. 31.

Wilfert also played Rona in the national tour of the show.

“Rona was also a previous winner,” Wilfert said, offering a little insight into her character. “It does come up. She does reflect on her experience of winning the bee. It was the highlight of her life. In her imagination it’s as if she won the Miss America pageant.”

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is billed as a hip musical comedy that follows six young people in the throes of puberty, who are overseen by grown-ups who barely managed to escape childhood themselves, as they learn that winning isn’t everything and that losing doesn’t necessarily make you a loser. At each performance, four audience volunteers are selected and invited on stage to participate in the Bee, making each performance unique.

It’s that aspect of the show that keeps Wilfert and the other members of the cast on their toes for every performance. Different personalities are on stage during each show.

The guest spellers “are such an integral part of the show. It’s what makes it so special. It’s a poised discomfort,” Wilfert said of reacting nightly to the different guest spellers. “It works your instincts so well.”

Demond Green plays Mitch Mahoney.

“He is sort of a comfort counselor,” Green said. “Once a kid has misspelled a word he gives him a hug and a juice box.”

Mitch is there as a part of his community service — but that’s another story.

Like Wilfert, Green enjoys the spontaneity the guest spellers bring to the show.

“We have to constantly be on our toes. Part of the charm of the show is the guest spellers,” he said. “People get so excited when they spell a word right.”

For Green the word he’ll never forget is “slipper.”

“I spelled it with one ‘p,’” he said. “You never forget that word.”

William Finn, a Natick native, wrote the music and lyrics for this show. While he was never in a bee himself, he said it was easy to put himself in that role. He was originally introduced to this piece from friend and playwright Wendy Wasserstein. What he did with it, he said, was to see what happened to the characters after they finished spelling.

“That is what we added. That is what we did,” he said. “We wanted to fill their lives out.”

And while he thinks the guest spellers are an important piece to the success of this show, he said there’s another, more basic, reason for its success.

“There are a lot of pleasures in this show,” he said. “I wrote it as an antidote to George W. Bush. I wrote it because I knew people had stopped laughing. We had to start laughing again. It was something delicious that helped get us away from the news.”

Created, work shopped and developed by the Barrington Stage Company in western Massachusetts in the winter of 2004 and presented that summer, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” opened Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre where it was an instant hit, prompting it to move to Broadway’s Circle-in-the-Square Theater. Nominated for six Tony Awards — including Best Musical —it took home two 2005 Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical, according to NSMT.

When Wilfert was at Barrington with the show, she said the nationally televised spelling bee was on and the cast and crew watched it together.

“You feel for these kids,” she said. “Parents are pushing them (as if it’s) a child’s beauty pageant. It’s kind of the land of the misfit toys. Theater attracts the same kinds of misfits. You found a place you fit in.”

When a participant spells the word wrong, “it feels the same to me as when I’m watching an actor forget his line or sing off key.”

But what do they do?

P-E-R-S-E-V-E-R-E and go on with the show.


Tickets for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly through Aug. 31, are priced from $40 and $77. Senior & Youth Discounts and rush tickets are available. Also check out for special ticket packages including “Date Night” and “Girl’s Night Out” (a perfect outing idea for teachers or moms). For tickets go to:, call 978-232-7200, or stop by in person at 62 Dunham Road, Beverly.

Do you want to be a guest speller?

Then here’s what you need to do: Get to the show early and look for the NSMT staff in the lobby wearing red shirts to sign up for your chance to be one of the four guest spellers who join in the on-stage fun for each performance. Sign up starts one hour before the show. People can sign up anytime up until 10 minutes before the start of the show. The winning participants are announced 10 minutes before the start of the show.

Sally Wilfert, who portrays spelling bee coordinator Rona Lisa Perretti, said these are the qualities that make for a good guest speller.

“The dream speller doesn’t mind if you poke fun at him gently,” she said. “Just be good natured, have a good time and go with the flow.”

William Finn, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show, had similar suggestions.

“Just be yourself, laugh and have a good time,” he said.