When Grace McCarthy first proposed that she direct a full production for the Schenectady Light Opera Company, they turned her down. Of course, she was only 15 at the time.
Just two years later, however, McCarthy, a Wynantskill resident and senior at the Emma Willard School in Troy, is getting the go-ahead. With the assistance of SLOC veteran Michael Mensching acting as her mentor, McCarthy is directing a production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” opening Friday and running through March 30.
“When I first applied to direct, I was really young,” said McCarthy, who did serve as assistant director on the 2012 SLOC production of “Baby,” directed by Sev Moro. “They said they couldn’t use me. But I’ve always been eager to direct on my own, and I’ve been working on this show now for almost two years. I’m really enjoying the experience.”
“Spelling Bee” was created by Tony Award-winning composer William Finn and playwright Rachel Sheinkin. It was nominated for six Tony Awards and won two — Best Book in a Musical and Best Featured Actress. It tells the story of six young overachievers (all played by adult actors) vying to win the Putnam County Spelling Bee, and was originally workshopped and produced in 2004 at the Barrington Stage Company in Great Barrington, Mass.
In the SLOC production, Emily Landona is Olive, Rona Lisa Perreti is Elizabeth and Nathan Perry is vice principal Panch. Also in the cast are Kevin Huneau as Leaf Coneybear, Hollie Miller as Mitch Mahoney, Stephen Foust as Barfee and Josh Rivera as Chip.
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ and ‘The Understudy’
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’
WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St., Schenectady
WHEN: Opens 8 p.m. Friday and runs through March 30; performances at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $28-$18
MORE INFO: 1-877-350-7378, www.sloctheater.org
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Playhouse, 12 S. Church St., Schenectady
WHEN: Opens 8 p.m. Friday and runs through March 30; performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $17
MORE INFO: 346-6204,
“If there has to be a lead it’s Olive, but it really is an ensemble because they’re all at the same level,” said McCarthy. “I like the play because it’s very funny, but it also has some serious underlying tones. Each character has some kind of epiphany about what success is, or what it means to be a winner.”
As far as McCarthy can see, the cast doesn’t have a problem taking instructions from a 17-year-old high school senior.
“I love my cast,” she said. “They are so respectful, despite the fact that I’m only 17, and I also listen to them. I take their suggestions. I listen to their feedback and I think that’s made me more credible to them.”
Mensching, who is also directing “Boeing-Boeing” at Home Made Theater in Saratoga Springs, admitted he was a bit surprised when told that SLOC was scheduling a 17-year-old to direct one of its shows.
“I met Grace last year for the first time, and my job as a mentor was to help her and guide her,” he said. “I was surprised at first, but she’s doing fine. She’s got really good instincts, she’s very smart, and she’s getting along well with the cast. She’s kind of on her own now, but she knows what she wants, and she has a real passion for what she’s doing.”
According to McCarthy, Mensching has served in his capacity wonderfully.
“They wanted me to work with an adult in case I needed any help, and he’s been perfect,” she said. “He came to the auditions, and at first I saw him quite a bit. I haven’t seen him that much lately, but that’s because he knows I have a vision. He’s letting me do it my way.”
While McCarthy has had fun with the casting process for school productions she’s directed, the auditions for “Spelling Bee” were particularly enjoyable.
“Each night we had about 20 to 30 people show up and it was really cool,” she said. “That was like a reality check for me. I was like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ Adults were trying to win me over, trying to impress me. People actually wanted to work with me.”
Frank Krumal is the show’s musical director and Jordan Fyvie is handling the choreography.
“When I first heard that I was going to be able to do this, I realized I had to get my crew together,” remembered McCarthy. “I thought that it was going to be hard, maybe, to find people to work with someone my age, but people have been great.”
McCarthy, who also performs with an a capella group at Emma Willard and is part of the school’s crew team, isn’t sure where she’s going to college next year. But she knows what her major will be.
“I loved performing, but in directing I found something that I love even more, and I think it comes easier for me,” she said. “I’ve looked into a few colleges, and I know I want to major in directing or playwrighting. Something in this field. I feel very lucky to have found something I’m so passionate about at a young age.”
Also opening Friday night is a production of “The Understudy” by the Schenectady Civic Players. Theresa Rebeck’s comedy, a clever indictment of contemporary theater, had its world premiere in July of 2008 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and went on to be a big off-Broadway success.
Mark Stephens, who played the elf in the SCP production of “SantaLand Diaries” earlier this season, is directing the show. Cristine M. Loffredo is playing Roxanne, a prominent director charged with running the understudy rehearsal for an upcoming production. When she finds out that her ex-fiancé has been cast as the understudy, Roxanne’s professional and personal lives collide.
Michael Schaefer plays Harry, the ex-fiancé, and Joel A. Bramer is Jake, another understudy who also happens to be a famous action-movie star yearning for legitimacy in the theater.
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]