Teens spell out P-L-A-Y

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NAUGATUCK — This weekend, displays of memorabilia are being pushed aside and the halls of the Naugatuck Historical Society museum will be filled with music as nine talented teenagers uproot the past to make way for their own history.

The Naugatuck Teen Theatre (NTT) is presenting “Spelling Bee,” a musical comedy about the 25th annual Putnam County competition, every night this weekend.

The musical is run entirely by teens, most of whom are recent graduates of area high schools and veterans of NTT.

Curtis Dunn, the show’s director, said he had been trying to do a student-run production at his school in Thomaston, but it fell through.

Then he and his friends went to the Naugatuck Teen Theatre board with the idea for the show and got approved.

The board, based out of St. Michael’s Church, is bankrolling the production, which means paying for the rights to the musical.

“Our board decided to back it because we thought it would be good for the teen theater,” said Oliver Diedrich, the board’s chair, who called the teens in the show the “crème of the crop.”

“We’re quite confident it was a good decision on our part,” he said.

The teen theatre usually performs a straight play in the fall and musical in spring. In the summer, St. Michael’s Church hall, where the teen theatre usually performs, is preparing for its annual fair, according to Diedrich.

“You can’t even walk in this place,” he said.

NTT needed another venue. The young actors found one at the historical society, a space big enough to host a small stage and about 80 seats.

“It’s definitely a more intimate space than all of us are used to,” said Coleen Gunning, who plays Rona Lisa Peretti and recently graduated from Pomperaug Regional High School.

She said the smaller space should mean more energy from the audience.

“It’s fitting for the show we’re doing,” Gunning said.

Wendy Murphy, historical society president, said she hopes the summer play becomes an annual event.

“We’re always looking for new ways to be multigenerational and the fact that these kids came to us is really exciting to me,” she said.

Dunn said he picked Spelling Bee because it’s one of his favorite shows. Plus, it can work with minimal set and doesn’t require a big cast.

“It’s a difficult show, but to direct it’s probably a lot easier than having a huge ensemble,” Dunn said.

Dunn said each of the cast members has to rely on themselves. Everyone has solos and backup parts. The musical centers on the characters of six child spellers and three adults as they deal with personal growing pains and compete for spelling dominance.

Gunning said her character, the spelling bee’s moderator, is very passionate about what she does and lives vicariously through the children.

As musical director for the show, Gunning said it is a good chance for her to use more from her musical background and a good experience learning how to organize everything.

With no adult directors, Gunning said the cast feels free to express their ideas amongst peers.

“It’s a more comfortable and open experience,” she said.

The teens have been practicing at cast member’s houses since the beginning of August since the historical society museum is busy during the day. They started running dress rehearsals at the historical society on Monday.

All but two of the cast members are leaving for college within a week after the play. Some hope to pursue their love of acting while others are majoring in biology and undecided.

Austin Carnes, who plays Chip Tolentino in the show, is a recent graduate of Pomperaug Regional High School. He plans to major in theatre at Western Connnecticut State University this fall.

Carnes said he enjoys the audience interaction in “Spelling Bee” and working with his fellow actors.

After college, Carnes said he wants to open a theatre school for children.

Performances of “Spelling Bee” are Aug. 19, 20, and 21 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door.

From left, Jeff O'Brien, Laura Shannon and Curtis Dunn rehearse 'Spelling Bee' Monday night for their performances at the Naugatuck Historical Society this weekend.