In part two of a series of interviews with the cast of Greenbelt Arts Center’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, meet Pamela Northrup as Rona Lisa Peretti and Jim Adams as Vice Principal Douglas Panch.
Joel: Pamela and Jim, please introduce yourself and tell our readers where they may have seen you on local stages.
Pamela: I’m Pamela Northrup, playing Rona Lisa Peretti. Most recently, at Silver Spring Stage I played Sylvia in the world premiere of The Emperor of North America. I played Mrs. Graves in Greenbelt Arts Center’s production of Enchanted April, and Delilah Strict in Zombie Prom, also at GAC. I’ve also performed with Prince George’s Little Theatre and Bowie Community Theatre.
Jim: Hi there! Jim Adams here, playing Vice Principal Douglas Panch. I’ve been acting off and on in community theater for a little over 20 years, though I took a break in the early 2000s to spend more time with my kids while they were young. I most recently appeared on the GAC stage as Gabe in Dinner with Friends in November 2016. Past GAC roles have included Karl Lindner in both Clybourne Park and Raisin in the Sun, and Brian in Avenue Q. I’ve also appeared at Prince George’s Little Theatre, MAD, Bowie Community Theatre, St. George’s Players and Sandy Spring Theatre Group.
Why did you want to play Rona (Pamela) and Panch (Jim) in this Greenbelt Arts Center production?
Pamela: I’ve loved this show since I first saw the Broadway cast perform at the Tony Awards in 2005. The show is such a fun, cheeky look at middle school. Having been at the geeky end of the spectrum myself as a kid, I really appreciate that this show embraces all different sorts of nerds and celebrates them rather than mocking them. I always have a good time working with both Jeff [Lesniak] and Rikki [Howie Lacewell], which was certainly part of the appeal. And it didn’t hurt that it was an opportunity to work with some of my closest friends, as well as some terrifically talented folks I hadn’t previously worked with.
Jim: It wasn’t the characters so much as the show over all. I find Spelling Bee to be a delightful little story with catchy music and a wonderfully cheeky attitude. I have a lot of close friends in the cast (aside from the “instant best friends” that often come with bonding during a production), so it’s just been a delightful experience.
How do you relate to your character? What do you admire about him or her?
Pamela: Rona *was* one of these kids, as was I, although I was a math nerd rather than a spelling nerd. She adores them all, and loves them for their quirks. She truly wishes every one of them could win, and it breaks her heart a little every time that bell rings to eliminate another speller.
Jim: The closest I might say is that Panch and I both have unrequited crushes on acquaintances. Although, I suppose Panch just pours all of his focus into one, while I have dozens. I’d like to think I’m neither that obvious nor that obnoxious (at least I hope not). Otherwise there’s not a great deal to relate to, aside from enjoying the sound of my own voice.
How would you describe the music and the choreography for Putnam County Spelling Bee?
Pamela: The music is terrific. It’s got some really interesting harmonies, and I think the songs capture the characters quite well. Rikki’s choreography is just plain fun – we’re having a great time with it, and I think the audience will feel that energy as well.
Jim: I’ve enjoyed the Spelling Bee soundtrack since I was introduced to it a few years ago. It’s catchy and surprisingly complex, and one of the things that drew me to auditioning. There’s a certain irony in playing Panch, however, since he’s the only non-singing character (although Jeff has added me to most of the choral numbers to add some filler voice and give me something in the way of singing).
This is my third show with Rikki Howie Lacewell as choreographer (we originally met on stage together in a 1999 production of Godspell), and she’s always a joy to work with in any capacity. Thankfully, as I’m playing one of the “grownups” in this show, I have a lot less movement than the 20- and 30-somethings portraying elementary and middle school kids. For which my 48 year old knees will be eternally grateful.
What was Director Jeffery Lesniak’s vision of the show and his vision of your character when you first began rehearsals. Has it changed? And was there something new about his vision that surprised you? or you found exciting to play?
Pamela: I think Jeff has had a consistent plan for this show – I know it’s one he’s been interested in directing for a while. He’s allowed all of us a good amount of freedom to explore our characters and play. This show allows for a lot of improvisation and creativity, and we’ve developed some really good stuff that I think the audiences will enjoy.
Jim: As I experienced in Avenue Q, Jeff usually wears so many hats for each of his productions, his guiding hand is usually a light touch. His talent is generally identifying and assembling a talented cast who can work well together. We’ve leaned on each other a lot for ideas and thoughts for our characters. As for Panch, it’s been a harder than I expected to find a good focus for the character… whether to make him a good-natured buffoon, or using a spiteful and mean-spirited “middle school vice principal” trope and trying out a number of different regional accents to find something that I felt fit well. Eventually, I disposed of the various accents, and focused more on Panch’s feelings about the circumstances of being called unexpectedly to be the word “pronouncer” of the Bee, and his possible backstory with Rona, the event’s host.
Why do you think The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is popular with audiences? What message does it convey to theater goers?
Pamela: Every adult in the audience has lived through that awkward stage of middle school. They can all find something in at least one of the characters that they can identify with, and I think it reminds all of us to hold on to a bit of the child within us, and to celebrate what makes us all a little bit different.
Jim: Not only is the music fun, but there’s a lot of subversiveness in the script, regarding the pressures of being a pre-adolescent (or an adult who has to deal with them). Each of the characters, while caricatures, has several moments that are instantly relatable to the audience, either by first hand or second hand experience.
What’s next for you on the stage or off?
Pamela: I don’t have anything particular lined up right now – mostly looking forward to some down time to hang out with my husband Kris and our daughter Zoe. But I’ve always got my eye out for the next audition.
Jim: Since I started Spelling Bee immediately after the closing of Dinner with Friends, I’m looking forward to taking a break for several months, and re-acquaint myself with my family. Might start looking around again in the fall after my oldest goes off to college. Provided I don’t need to get another job to pay for it. Would you like fries with that?
What is your favorite spelling word heard onstage in this Bee?
Pamela: I would have to say “BOANTHROPY.” Partly because I think the definition is pretty funny, and partly because I love the song it leads into.
Jim: That’s a tough choice! There are about 20 words that are in the script that show up in every performance, but there are another 70-80 for our guest spellers that I get to use at my own discretion. There were about 50 that the script provided, but Jeff Lesniak and I came up with probably another 20 or so, including definitions and use in a sentence, which can occasionally send things off the rails a bit in a fun way. Hard to pick a favorite among them. As for the “fixed” words, just from a “that sounds pleasant” perspective, I’m fond of “phylactery” and “schematic.”
Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays from March 3 to 25, 2017, at Greenbelt Arts Center – 123 Centerway, in Greenbelt, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 441-8770, or purchase them online.
Meet the Cast of Greenbelt Arts Center’s ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’: Part One: Director Jeff Lesniak.
Meet the Cast of Greenbelt Arts Center’s ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’: Part Two: Pamela Northrup and Jim Adams.
Meet the Cast of Greenbelt Arts Center’s ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’: Part Three: Rachel Pino-Elliott and John Carter.