Opening night in the first city of a national tour would be enough pressure for most actors. But at the press opening of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee last week at the Hippodrome Theatre, "so many things went wrong that it sort of felt that we were haunted," says Jennifer Simard, who found herself alone on stage winging it when the sound board crashed at the start of the show.
Luckily, Simard, who plays the host of the bee, had a couple of things going for her. The musical includes audience interaction and improvisation (though hardly as much as Simard wound up doing that night).
Improvisation was also part of her audition for the role, and it's the way she started her career. For a year and a half in the early 1990s, the New Hampshire native was a member of a Boston improv troupe.
"The thing they taught me in improv, more than anything, is a good actor is a relaxed actor. So I thought: I've just got to be relaxed. If you panic, you freeze," she recalls during a conversation this week.
On that fateful Wednesday, she glanced down and noticed a piranha - the mascot of the fictitious Putnam County school where the bee takes place - painted on the floor. "The other thing they teach you in improv is: Just pick something and go with it because you don't have time to question," she says. In a split second, she decided to teach the audience a cheer: "Putnam Valley Piranhas," complete with gestures and menacing sound effects.
Her ploy worked so well, some theatergoers probably didn't realize it isn't usually in the show. And, Simard says, "We've gotten some e-mails from some of the other [Spelling Bee] companies saying, `So what's the cheer if that happens to us?'"
The sound problem was quickly remedied, and Simard broke into her opening number, which includes the all-too-appropriate lyric: "In the moment before the bee/Claims its first catastrophe." "I almost laughed after `catastrophe,'" she admits.
Before Simard could breathe a sigh of relief, however, an actor playing one of the contestants took ill. Alan H. Green, who portrays the bee's "comfort counselor" - assigned to provide solace to the losers - came on stage and told Simard, "You need to stop the show. Our understudy needs to get ready."
Suddenly the audience found itself doing the piranha cheer again, this time led by the rest of the cast, as well as several of the volunteer spellers recruited before each performance. "I was so proud of the cast," Simard says, "because it really was a group effort. Improv only works if the ball is caught."
Nor was that the last of the irregularities. A little later, Simard was handed a note on stage. It was from director James Lapine, informing her that he was putting an intermission in the normally intermission-less show to give the cast and the audience a rest.
After intermission, there were no further glitches. But when the performance was over, the impact of what Simard had been through "hit me like a ton of bricks," she says. "The assistant stage manager came backstage and hugged me, and I burst into tears."
Even in her improv days, Simard says she never experienced this great a confluence of aberrations. "Definitely, for me, it will go down in the record book," she says.
This wasn't the first time a production of Spelling Bee has had to fill in the blanks. Early in the show's Broadway run, an actor became sick in the middle of a performance, and the cast needed to kill 10 minutes while the understudy prepared.
Darren Katz, Spelling Bee's associate director, recalls that actor David Hasselhoff happened to be in the audience. "They called him to the stage as if he was a speller. They proceeded to give him words to spell," Katz says. "They also [did] a little bit of banter, and David Hasselhoff really was a terrific sport."
"Fortunately, this show is very good at being able to work around situations like that," he says.
Simard agrees. "It really does lend itself to improv," she says, adding that she's especially grateful not to have been doing Shakespeare when the glitches occurred. "`His lord, the Thane of Baltimore, is working on it.' That would have been awful," she says.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" continues through Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $27-$72. Call 410-547-SEAT or visit broadwayacrossamerica.com.