How do you go from being an opera singer to playing an ex-con who comforts spelling bee losers? It’s been a natural progression for Amherst native Garfield Hammonds, who plays that colorful character in the witty and wacky musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Cleveland Play House.

Hammonds graduated from the former Admiral King High School in Lorain, received an undergraduate music degree with a focus in opera theater from Ohio State University and a master’s in music and vocal pedagogy from the University of Nevada. While at Nevada, he was a regional winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council competition.

This classically trained tenor started doing theater in high school and also did community productions at the Palace Theater in Lorain as well as the Stocker Center. He grew up with the name Michael Jordan, but legally changed it when he went to college.

Hammonds last performed at Playhouse Square in August on the national tour of Motown, the Musical, in the ensemble and as an understudy for the roles of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. Now, he plays ex-con Mitch Mahoney, who has to do community service by providing hugs and juice boxes to young spellers when they’re eliminated.

“These kids are freaking out about spelling words … and Mitch is sort of like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Hammonds explained.

One of his character’s great lines to the audience is, “Sometimes I wanna beat ’em up a little so they understand that pain has degrees, and this is nothin’.”

The actor said he enjoys playing a character from a completely different background than his own: “It’s fun to play the role because as an actor, you’re always playing and pretending to be someone that you’re not.”

“I think he brings sometimes a seriousness to the play,” Hammonds said of Mitch.

The musical, featuring a cast whose shtick depends on interaction with guest star spellers as well as audience volunteers for each show, continues through May 6 at the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. The Tony Award-winning musical about extremely eccentric middle school misfits and the maladjusted adults in their spelling bee world premiered on Broadway in 2005. (Akron native Lisa Howard originated the role of former champ/moderator Rona Perretti.)

The coming-of age comedy, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, also features Broadway actors Ali Stroker (Spring Awakening and TV’s Glee), Kirsten Wyatt (Annie, Elf, Shrek), John Scherer (Sunset Boulevard, By Jeeves, Funny Girl), Lee Slobotkin (The Book of Mormon) and Kay Trinidad Karns (The Little Mermaid). Rounding out the cast are Chad Burris, who performed in The Book of Mormon tour, Case Western/CPH master’s student Mariah Burks and Andres Quintero, who did the national tour of Altar Boyz.

“There are six adults playing children. You have to be careful that you don’t lose their humanity. We’re just trying to embody the spirit of what it means to be a child” in such a high-stakes competition, Hammonds said.

Tickets cost $25 to $110, $15 for student rush. Call 216-241-6000 or see www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Coach House show

New Coach House artistic directors Cassandra Capocci and Sergio Iriarte launched their first show last weekend with three one-act plays entitled Life Happens: An Evening of Contemporary(ish) Comedy.

The show started with Elaine May’s Adaptation, a one-act play that was her greatest success — an off-Broadway hit in 1969. May, a screenwriter, film director, actress, playwright and comedian, became famous in the late 1950s and early 1960s in her comedy duo with Mike Nichols, the late film and theater director, producer and actor.

Capocci directs a cast of four in Adaptation, which has a game show format that leads the Contestant (Tom Bryant) through the seven ages of man, from infancy to death. The satirical commentary that accompanies the game is a reflection of political, racial and cultural phenomena of mainly the 1960s. Those who were adults in that era will most likely be best able to relate to the material.

The casts, which had three weeks to prepare, handle the material deftly. At times the event feels like a lesson in Thespian exercises.

The most humor comes in the two David Ives one-acts, Sure Thing and The Philadelphia from the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Sure Thing, actors Keith and Sarah Maag meet for the first time in a restaurant, and get a do-over each time a bell rings when their character says the wrong thing. In the perverse humor of The Philadelphia, it’s like opposite day, and characters played by Keith Maag and W. Bradley Vincent have to ask for the opposite thing to get what they want.

In one telling quote, Vincent’s character Mark says, “I’ve been asking for the wrong thing for so long, doing it on purpose came easily.”

Performances continue through Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Cost is $20 or $10 for students. The show has mature language. See www.showclix.com/events/21456. Next up is Moonlight and Magnolias May 24-June 10, the story about how the movie Gone with the Wind almost didn’t happen.

Verb Ballets

Verb Ballets of Cleveland will perform at 8 p.m. Friday at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron, featuring Adam Hougland’s K281, an encore of Tommie-Waheed Evans’ Dark Matter and Ohio Ballet founder Heinz Poll’s Eight By Benny Goodman. The dance troupe recently returned from a tour of Cuba.

Cost is $17-$35, with student discounts available. Call 330-972-7570 or see www.verbballets.org. The hall is at 198 Hill St.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.