Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review of *The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee*

Posted on Sat, Jan 29, 2011 at 11:58 PM

at the Civic’s Firth J. Chew Studio Theatre through Feb. 20


You know how some nights in the theater feel like magic? The energy’s up, the cast is well practiced, the audience is full of anticipation. There’s a sense of playfulness. The space is right — suited to the kind of show that’s being presented.

Those last two are important — because when you’re presenting a musical with adults pretending to be kids, as Spokane Civic Theatre currently is in its production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — the playfulness needs to be up-close and sincerely played.

Just as it is here. Magic.

Director Kathie Doyle-Lipe has guided a talented cast through a surprisingly uproarious, unexpectedly touching show that’s danced and sung and skip-to-my-lou slobbered over and loved like a shaggy dog.

It’s like a really fun recess, only choreographed. And it doesn’t have all that much to do with spelling (though a nerdy acquaintance with the dictionary helps). What’s really at stake is our insecurities and anxieties.

You know how it felt to be called up to the microphone and please, God, please-please-please let me not screw up? That’s Spelling Bee. But with the delightful addition of a snarky vice principal and a pink pig of a finger-puppet.

But let’s go to the play-by-play, shall we? ---

7:32 pm -- Curtain speech from artistic director Yvonne Johnson, and you could just sense the pride in the whole operation: a successful farce upstairs, this show about to take a bow, Nunsense and Metamorphoses waiting in the upstairs and downstairs wings, nearly every show nearly selling out. Johnson had a justified sense of pride in how the Civic is operating, and the audience was clearly responding. Cards on the table: Yvonne and I disagree in several areas. But I will write here what I would have told her tonight if we had bumped into one another: We may have our disagreements, but we can agree on this: It is a very fine thing that the Green Bay Packers are in the Super Bowl. And one thing more: The Civic has been churning out a whole string of hit shows, and it is largely to her credit. 

7:34 pm  --  For the overture, ”Flight of the Bumblebee” in an amped-up version. Cute signs festoon David Baker’s gym-floor-and-bleachers set: “Bully-Free Zone,” “Listen and Silent share the same letters.”

7:36 -- As our spellers are introduced, the costumes of Jan Wanless et al. earn applause — especially the quilt-pajama bottoms, tie-dye shirt, bicycle helmet and baseball cape with pink piggy face of the wacky hippie kid, Leaf Coneybear (Mark Pleasant). Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (Molly Ovens) sports snakes of carrot hair over a dark, no-nonsense suit.

7:38 -- Audience laughter is almost overwhelming the performances. Part of the fun is watching the spellers’ ongoing quirks of characterization, like William Barfee (Lance Babbitt) marking out his meditation area “with invisible tape,” and Logainne’s lisp and twitching fingers, and her obedient (and politically correct) signing (for the hearing-impaired) during the Pledge of Allegiance.

7:42 -- Two of the plucked-from-the-audience “volunteer” spellers, plopped down on the bleachers’ front row, look miserable. But this show takes on real energy in the kind of space it was designed for — that is, in a black box as opposed to a 1,200-seat auditorium with proscenium stage. 

7:46 -- While only keyboard and percussion are credited in the program, I thought I saw other personnel in the musician’s area — at any rate, someone is playing what sounds like some really nice clarinet during “My Favorite Moment of the Bee,” which is sung with engaging game-show-hostess feeling by Maureen Kumakura as Rona Lisa Peretti. Pleasant — who is the real crowd-pleaser in this show, obviously a high-energy master comedian — gets laughs during the flashback sequence about how he came in third at his local bee (but still managed to qualify for the county-wide competition) by, briefly, characterizing the two unseen Jewish kids who had to go instead to their bar mitzvah. Funny stuff.

7:49 -- Pleasant’s flashback is suddenly interrupted by his going into a trance and correctly spelling one word after another.

7:50 --  Tonal shift when Lacey Bohnet (as Olive Ostovsky, the one with no self-esteem, because her parents neglect her emotionally) steps to the mic. (She insists on reserving a chair for her dad, who will never show up.) Up close like this, you can sense the nervous energy onstage. Sometimes the songs (like “The Rules”) get too expository, too mundane. Spelling Bee is going to be the Civic’s entry in the statewide community-theater competition (right here at the Civic, March 11-13), and when Doyle-Lipe looks to cut this down to an hour, she’s going to need to need to speed up some of the expository stuff (without losing it) and shorten the second act’s more serious passages. But more on that later....

7:51 -- As the vice principal, Greg Pschirrer deals out the snark and the skepticism. Some of the biggest laughs come on the sentences and definitions that he reads to the spellers. Bohnet sells Olive’s love of wordplay and the dictionary, almost caressing it, and then you realize — she loves order so much because her inner life is so disordered. A nice touch.

7:54 -- “Jihad.” “Can you use that in a sentence, please?” “Billy, jump behind this wall, I think I see a jihad coming.” 

7:56 -- First guest speller eliminated, and “The Goodbye Song.” Surprising how much you find yourself pulling for the spellers (both actors and civilians), and how much you cringe at the sound of the elimination bell: Spelling Bee isn’t just fluff. It tugs at the anxieties we all feel. And Babbitt sounds like he really _is_ missing one nostril.

7:58  -- Beth Carey, prim in a schoolgirl uniform, marches up to the mic and confidently spells “phylactery” (Jewish prayer-book necklace), for which the sentence is: “Johnny, put down that phylactery — we’re Episcopalian.”

One of the volunteer spellers gets introduced with a line like, “Sally gets her haircuts from her third-grade brother,” and her hair _does_ look unkempt and chopped off, and the woman looks pissed. Which of course makes it all the funnier. 

8:01 --  Nancy Vancil provides great piano throbs, propelling Boy Scout Chip Tolentino (David A. McElroy II) into the start of “Pandemonium,” the show’s best (or at least most raucous) number. Doyle-Lipe deserves credit for choreographinc chaos here: McElroy jumping on Pschirrer’s back, Michael Hynes (as Mitch Mahoney, the comfort counselor) actually waving the flag threateningly,  audience spellers clinging to the bleachers as they’re swirled in circles, the whole gang doing a wild ring-around-the-posey dance, Rona Lisa’s chair being circled around in imitation. When the bleachers end their dizzying ride (diagonally stage right, later to be shifted to diagonally stage left -- a good directing decision for varying the sight lines), the spellers’ backpacks and water bottles still sway, momentarily neglected. It’s a small touch that emphasizes just how playful and energetic these “kids” are. The spelling competition resumes, and Pschirrer is back to smiling his passive-aggressive smile.

8:06 -- Flashback to Logainne’s over-demanding, fussy gay fathers: a good example of how doubling works, intensifying the humor. We’ve gotten accustomed to Pleasant as the carefree hippie boy and Hynes as the badass ex-con, so to see them, in just an eyeblink of a scene, as bitchy-urbane (and much more concerned with themselves than with their daughter) makes for a funny but also meaningful contrast. We’re in it, we get it, we’re out of it. Lots of well-observed moments like this by all the actors. It’s going to be difficult for Kathie to cut this one down to just an hour.

8:08 --  Flute licks (?) and keyboard runs during Leaf’s “I’m Not That Smart.” In his big number, Pleasant shines: he feels stupid (but he’ll get over it), he makes love to the mic, he goes all bass-voiced when he reveals his pink-pig finger-puppet, then swaggers comically when he goes into his habitual trance and actually gets a word right: “I _might_ be smart.”

8:11 -- Comic bit with short Olive and tall mic, representing her lack of self-confidence. Soon after, second audience speller eliminated (sexual double-entendre on “ho” and “dong”).

8:16 -- “Magic Foot.” Babbitt waddles-dances and does dance-hall leaps and kicks that don’t exactly attain great heights. It’s hilarious. The three adults do jazz squares. Everyone’s celebrating Barfee’s “miraculous” ability.

8:20 -- Two in spotlights for the “Magic Foot Playoff.” Baker’s lighting design pays off here and in some of the oobie-doobie dream-sequence effects. 

8:22 --  Chip gets caught with his unfortunate erection in the bleachers. McElroy has great onstage energy, moves like a dancer, sings well, does nervousness well: His disbelieving “Whaaa...?” on being given an impossible spelling word is priceless.

8:24 --  I was skeptical of Hynes’ casting as the uncomforting comfort counselor: Mike has a chipper, all-American vibe that’d be hard to surmount, I thought, in a gruff biker dude. But in “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor, Mike’s goody-goody side pays off in genuine concern for these kids: he’s tattooed and tough on the outside, in other words, but shows us that he can empathize, too (which sets up what we discover about his future in the epilogue). I’d still prefer more savage grumpiness and genuine menace in the role, but Hynes carries off an effective blend of kind and scary.

8:26 -- In short order, dismissal of the first of our six actor-spellers and the fourth and last of the audience-spellers. (On opening night, it was Bad Hair Lady. To her credit, she eventually started smiling and joining in the fun, while still maintaining a sour puss — which, she seemed to intuit ... 

8:31 -- ... during her sung-and-danced goodbye sequence, makes comedy all the funnier. A good sport.) After Pschirrer pulled out the briefcase with the Really Hard Words and eliminated her, she was pulled into the dance and heard to mutter, “This is a nightmare.”

The side-jokes are against racists, against politically correct liberals, against Obamacare -- both sides of the political spectrum get skewered.

8:33 --  Hynes’s Mitch Mahoney has a crush on the last speller, gets on his knees and woos her. Hynes, who knows how to serenade a woman, uses the Good Angel side of his personality effectively here.

Snack break: Barfee worries that the snack might upset his peanut allergies — so the V.P. throws a some food right in his crotch.

8:34 -- Chip, reduced to selling concessions, tosses treats into the audience. After trading with my seatmate, I got a Spiderman candy!

Filed under “Sign that the show is probably going pretty well”: I glance over at Doyle-Lipe in the second row, who’s stuffing her face with candy, laughing, mock-grimacing over one joke or another, obviously enjoying herself. 

Quick check on actors staying in character: Up on the top row of the bleachers, Pleasant is absently staring up into the rafters; Ovens is studying the fine print on her water bottle. Just like kids.

8:36 -- McElroy belts out “erection!” Again, he’s got the audience on his side — they all do. The intimate space invigorates the entire show.

8:38 -- Olive and William meet awkward. Perhaps a bit overplayed: Let Rachel Sheinkin’s book do the work here. Little boys express disgust with the little girls with whom they’re smitten.

8:40 -- Diction was off on Logainne’s song with her two dads. Dynamics with the band need work here as well: The music drowned out the lyrics here (and not only here). Earlier, there were a few bobbles when actors didn’t know how big the laughs would be. Cutting this show to an hour and re-locating it upstairs will present puzzles, obviously. Inside a black box, lyrics music audience noise and laughter = some blurring of lines.

8:42 -- Rapid-fire spelling, followed by slo-mo. Silly, childlike fun, and fun to watch, enhanced by Baker’s lighting.

8:44 -- Leaf hears the bells. Perfect eliciting of audience reaction: genuine sadness that he’s leaving us, followed by joy over how irrepressible Pleasant’s performance is, showing us what it means to be the opposite of a sore loser.

8:47 -- Marcy Park (Beth Carey) in “I Speak Six Languages.” This is a tough one, because the song, with its rapid patter and extended physical demands, seems almost unperformable. Carey, while good, is faced by a lot of physical demands. In an intimate theater, you can see her cheeks get flushed and the sweat on her brow. Marcy’s supposed to be this unflappable Superwoman who can demonstrate talent in three sports, not to mention all the languages, plus an affinity for Mozart — all while cavorting all over the stage and maintaining superior breath control and projection. It’s a huge challenge, and Carey does well in most but not all of it. 

8:50 --  Big finish with the karate chop. 

8:51 --  Marcy’s vision of Jesus. I love how the show mocks itself, when Our Saviour informs us that the results of some crummy spelling bee “are not the kind of thing that I usually care much about.”

8:52 --  Marcy’s big decision (and how she goes out of the bee) was well handled. 

8:53 -- Ominous keyboard drones for the multiple definitions on her last word.

8:55 -- Bohnet and Pschirrer create a touching moment with “chimerical,” the lead-in to “The I Love You Song” — the point being that Olive’s fantasy of loving parents is just that, a fantasy. 

8:57 -- Problems with both beginning and end of this song. After the wild abandon of Act One, the second act frequently gets more serious. Tonal shifts, given audience expectations, can be difficult. Marcy’s decision, while serious, was treated happily: self-defeating in the short term but self-improving over the long haul. But Olive’s dream sequence is nearly tragic. Audiences may withhold their sympathy, expecting matters to turn comic or snarky at any moment. As the fantasy parents, Kumakura and Hynes blend their voices with Bohnet wonderfully, chillingly — a great moment near the end — but this is the number which signals what’s going on least well in this production, and clearly, in cutting down for competition, the decision’s going to have to be made to delete the second “I Love You” chorus, at a minimum. The number seems overlong. This was the point when I started wondering about the decision not to take an intermission. Lovely, sad flute licks, though, as the trio was singing.

9:03 -- Barfee gets “crepuscule,” which was the show’s original title.

9:06 --  Logainne goes out. The book works too hard at extending characterizations here (or something). The first half seems effortless: We’re laughing, then there are sad parts, now we’re being asked to learn more about the characters’ lives _and_ laugh at them some more. It’s too much, and a bit disorienting for the audience. I love how PCSB wants to make us both laugh and cry, I really do — but first, trust how affecting the basic situation is (we’re pulling for the spellers and are saddened by their setbacks, with no elaboration needed), and second, beware the shifting audience-expectation signals as we move from serious to silly scenes. 

9:07 -- Down to the final two spellers, and another tonal shift. Kumakura _does_ make her third Rona moment bigger; Pschirrer ogles her. 

9:08 -- When Barfee gets angry over the spilled Coke, Babbitt is being restrained, looks over his shoulder, and a menacing cloud passes over his face: the look of a bully, and in a no-bully zone. Well done.

9:11 -- Babbitt and Bohnet dance a pas de deux, with Barfee’s jetees getting virtually no clearance off the floor and Olive giving him the love-longing eye.

There’s always something almost funny/touching about the klutzy guy who tries to and almost can but really can’t dance. Babbitt’s hilarious here.

9:14 -- We have a winner! (who rips the trophy out of the presenter’s hands). Good sense of triumph here with swirling lights. High-fives all around, and nice to see the rest of the spellers rejoin onstage.

9:16 -- Mini-bio’s: what happens to them in future. Very satisfying. 

9:20 -- Finale, making this, by my watch, a 106-minute show. Ad libs with audience spellers slowed it down? Forty-six minutes to cut? Yikes. 

In conclusion: A shout-out to Molly Ovens, who was so good in the title role of Miss Jean Brodie at EWU and unrecognizably different as Logainne in this show. That’s good acting, folks. And to Mark Pleasant for his alarming/comic “fall” from the top of the bleachers, which I apparently skipped over in that portion of my notes which I could actually read -- it was done so realistically and so unexpectedly, that the audience belly-laughed louder because they went on a little comic journey from genuine concern (is he hurt?) to surprise and relief (it’s just Leaf being a kid).

The nine Civic performers are in most cases better — or else, in nearly all cases, as good as — their counterparts in last June’s CdA Summer Theater production (a banner from which hangs on the stage right wall, above the audience, exemplifying the spirit of cooperation that has arisen lately among the area’s theaters). It’s an exceptionally strong-voiced cast, without a weak link — and if you take that kind of strength of performance and add the intimate-theater factor, the result is a fun and enjoyable show that’s going to appeal to a wide variety of folks. 

What to cut? Reprises. Choruses. Two of the audience spellers. And the Marcy-Olive-Logainne seriousness in the second half is a minefield. 

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