‘Spelling Bee’ Brings Out the Child in Us


How do you spel kat?

What do you mean that’s rong?

Obviously, you’re not familiar with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. That’s the Broadway musical that won two Tony Awards in 2005 and just opened a Sept. 19 to Oct. 15 run at the Bristol Riverside Theatre (BRT). That’s where spelling is more than just a contest: It’s a religion.

Amy Kaissar | Photo provided

And that’s one of many reasons why it appeals to director Amy Kaissar, who once was one of those who combed the audience looking for good spellers when the show first appeared on Broadway. She’s just sorry the show is opening at BRT the same night as Rosh Hashanah.

Of course, she’s in good company when it comes to missing a big performance.

“It’s funny, I feel like I grew up with my father telling me about Sandy Koufax not pitching on Yom Kippur during the World Series,” said Kaissar, who attends Congregation Beth El in Yardley. “The truth is my work is pretty much done.

“But it’s a tricky thing being in theater and being observant. I’m lucky as the director because once the show is done, it’s done. But when I was younger and working backstage, I couldn’t take off for Shabbat or the holidays.”

So she can commiserate with the Jewish cast members and technical crew in Spelling Bee.

“Normally, I’d go to temple on the High Holidays,” said 22-year-old Brooke Wetterhahn, who plays the precocious 7-year-old Logainne, the most politically minded character. “However, I’d consider myself more culturally Jewish than actively religious.

“There’s other ways for me to feel like I’m recognizing the holiday. I’d prefer to celebrate in the normal way, but it’s a blessing to be able to be in this show.”

For Kaissar, Spelling Bee is a show she can relate to on several levels.

“We used to play Putnam Valley in sports,” recalled Kaissar, who grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y. “But what attracted me to Spelling Bee is that it’s hilariously funny on a lot of different levels. Really intelligent humor. It keeps everyone on their toes because at its core the show’s about what it means to grow up.

“There are things you understand about adulthood that you have a different perspective of when you’re an adolescent. The show is an honest take on that age group.”

Kaissar, who gained familiarity working one summer with middle school-aged children, said the cast captures that mentality.

“This is before you know what it means to conform,” said Kaissar, who studied directing at Carnegie Mellon University, then received her master’s degree in producing from Columbia University. “There’s no filter yet. You’re not fully formed.

“And the cast is hysterical at it because the show lends itself to that. But it’s universal because we are all, at some point, 10 years old.”

Kaissar was even younger than that — 2, in fact — when her parents introduced her to theater. She became enthralled and decided it was something she wanted to pursue — from behind the scenes, not onstage.

“It was very clear early on I was not going to be an actor,” said Kaissar, who directed the BRT production of Driving Miss Daisy last year. “I knew by high school directing was the right spot for me.

“The director is the one who tells the story. He or she takes the play as it exists on paper and figures out the best way to bring that out. The producer is responsible for creating the environment in which the work can happen.”

Kaissar has been both, which gives her insight into both roles.

“The director is responsible for everything the audience sees,” Kaissar said. “Producing is one step bigger because it includes the financing, hiring and marketing.

“To be a good producer, you have to understand how all the decisions are made. But there’s no job in theater more important than the director, who understands all the pieces and collaborates with the stage manager and the lighting designer but is responsible for unifying the whole thing.”

Wetterhahn, a recent New York University graduate who spent the summer doing concerts as one of Broadway Rising Stars, has been impressed.

Brooke Wetterhahn is 22, but plays a 7-year-old in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is playing at the Bristol Riverside Theatre through Oct. 15. | Photo provided

“Amy’s been lovely as director,” Wetterhahn said. “She makes everything collaborative. Because this is one of my first professional gigs it’s nice to not feel like such a newbie.”

Kaissar was equally impressed with Wetterhahn’s ability to improvise, which is essential for the character.

“She’s the youngest, but she’s always ranting about these political times,” Wetterhahn said. “It’s keeping me on my toes because I have to stay up with the news. Logainne rants about things she finds particularly distressing. She’s not the typical 7-year-old. She’s wise beyond her years — and wisecracking.”

“She blew me away,” Kaissar said. “I’d never met her before. We had over 2,000 submissions for the role of the young female, and she knocked my socks off. Then when we had a call back and had her do a political rant as Logainne, we were rolling around on the floor.”

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