Spokane Civic Theatre's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has won the Washington state community theater championship and is going to the national finals in Rochester, N.Y., in late June.
Spelling Bee dominated at this weekend's Kaleidoscope theater festival, winning seven of 12 awards in all and, most importantly, the overall production award. Even better (from the Civic's point of view), none of the other three states in Region IX of the American Association of Community Theatre sent representatives -- which means that, in effect, Spelling Bee gets to skip right past regionals and go directly to the national competition. (Due to travel distances, Alaska has typically not been represented. Perhaps because of the economy — and somewhat surprisingly — Oregon didn't come up with any candidates this time, either. As for Idaho, Lake City Playhouse's production of Almost, Maine — the state's sole entrant — had to withdraw because, well, the old church in which LCP is housed needs a new roof. Kathie Doyle-Lipe, who directed the Civic's Spelling Bee and whose experience there goes back a couple of decades or more, says she can't ever remember an instance in the every-other-year competition that nobody from the other three states even got to the starting line.)
ACT Richland (an auditioned group of high school students from the Tri-Cities) won the Excellence in Company Creativity award for its production of Don Zolidis' !Artistic Inspiration, about two hack writers trying to create a produceable and therefore awful play.
For its production of Doug Wright's creepy two-hander about a real estate agent showing a wealthy but sinister man around a huge mansion where recently some horrible things have happened, Wildwood Park, the Richland Players won for best sound, best lighting and best direction. Wildwood Park was also named the alternate production for advancing on to Rochester.
Bremerton Community Theatre won best set design and the Treasure Award for Arthur Miller's All My Sons.
Spokane Civic Theatre made the most of its home court advantage, winning for best costumes (Jan Wanless), best choreography (Kathie Doyle-Lipe), best design and production team, best ensemble, "Magic Moment" (an adjudicator-selected award for most compelling episode within a play, given to Lacey Bohnet for her lead singing in "The I Love You Song") and Outstanding Performance (Mark Pleasant as Leaf Coneybear, the hippie speller who goes into trances) — along with the all-important "Company Advancing to the National Festival" award.
Doyle-Lipe, who directed the show, reports that in the three months before the national competition, the Civic will probably schedule "a couple" of Spelling Bee performances — both to keep the performers sharp and to serve as fundraisers. After all, it will probably cost in excess of $30,000 to send two dozen people (cast, crew and band) to Rochester for a week.
Go see a play this weekend. You'll meet grunts in Vietnam, people riding elevators to Hell, a "poisonous hunch-backed toad," and actors performing four different one-hour shows at the Civic. All that, and a Kander and Ebb revue in CdA, too.
Hal Holbrook appears in Mark Twain Tonight! (Sat, 7 pm, INB Center). Visit bestofbroadwayspokane.com. The recent controversies over bowdlerization of Huck Finn and Garrison Keillor's critical review of the first volume of the Autobiography shouldn't obscure the fact that this might be the 86-year-old's final visit to Spokane in the ice cream suit and whiskers. Read a preview.
Jeff Sanders, who's a lecturer in theater at EWU and is currently playing the father in Privilege at Interplayers, has adapted Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried — which is also the focus of Spokane's version of the Big Read, with discussions and theatrical events taking place all around the area through April 24 and featuring O'Brien's appearance at the Bing on April 16 as part of Get Lit!
Several playgoers have written in to say how impressive they think Sanders' adaptation and his wife Sara Goff's direction are. Just four performances left: Thurs 5 pm, Fri-Sat 7:30 pm at EWU's University Theater, Cheney; and a special free performance at the Bing on Friday, March 18, at 7:30 pm .
The Washington State Community Theater Festival (known as "Kaleidoscope") is at the Civic: Fri 7-8:30 pm, Sat 2-6 pm. Because of Tacoma's cancellation, Friday brings just one performance (a comedy from Richland about two hacks trying to write a play), while Saturday features three (a two-hander from Richland set in a mansion; the Civic's one-hour version of Spelling Bee; and an Arthur Miller drama from Bremerton). Food and parties at each day's end. $15 and $20. Call 325-2507.
Damon Mentzer, who has played leading roles at the Civic, Interplayers and Actors Rep, takes on the longest role in Shakespeare in Richard III at SFCC: Thurs-Sat 7 pm. $8. 533-3592. (That's Laurence Olivier in the 1955 movie, right.)
Eurydice is at Whitworth: Fri-Sat 8 pm (final two performances). It's a quirky drama by by Pulitzer nominee Sarah Ruhl (pictured; no, she's not the one in the crown) about the myth told from the wife's point of view: What if she misses her father so much (he's already in Hades) that she doesn't really want to follow her husband back into our world? (Orestes doesn't think of anything besides music anyway.) Brooke Kiener's production in Cowles Auditorium suffers some from proscenium-distancing, but there are lots of humorous moments in this 90-minute show. College shows often have trouble with elderly characters, and this show's no exception; further, the three choral Stones hit a languourous, cynical tone and not much else (there's more potential in the script). But the two leads are full of grace and youthful idealism -- and best of all, set designer Peter Hardie actually pulls off the watery special effects for the rides down to the Underworld. (No spoilers, but it's the show's signature visual effect.) And the final sequence (involving those SFX) was exquisite.
Menopause the Musical is at Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights, March 12-17 (times vary). Call 242-7000 or visit northernquest.com. And The Music Man will be playing the Pend Oreille Pavillion there on April 5-10.
Fri-Sat 7:30 pm, Lake City Playhouse in CdA has a musical fundraiser directed by Troy Nickerson and music-directed by Carolyn Jess: And the World Goes 'Round: The Music of Kander and Ebb, featuring songs from Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Cabaret, Funny Girl, The Rink and New York, New York, among others. Call (208) 667-1323.
Interplayers' production of Paul Weitz's Privileged opens officially tonight. We talked to director Maria Caprile this week for background on the show:
Openings this week include a chance to brush up on your Shakespeare at Gonzaga; three Civic actors joining LCHS students in a raucous musical; and a dramedy about family-financial malfeasance at Interplayers.
Interplayers presents Privilege — a dramedy about the effects on a wealthy family when Dad gets indicted for financial hanky-panky — on Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm. Tickets: $10-$22. Look for our slide show of production photos, with voiceover by director Maria Caprile.
The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) will be performed at GU's Magnuson Theater (east end of College Hall, 502 E. Boone Ave.) on Thurs-Sat 7-8:15 pm. (That's right, ten actors will allude to all 37 plays in just 75 minutes.) Directed by Kevin Connell, principal at G-Prep. Free!
At Lake City Playhouse, Almost, Maine presents nine blackout scenes about people falling in and out and in and out of love. Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm; closes March 6. Read a review. (Photo: Janelle Frisque and Aaron Baldwin)
Lewis and Clark High School's production of Hairspray presents three guest artists associated with the Civic: Thomas Heppler and Troy Nickerson as Wilbur and Edna Turnblad, and David McElroy as Seaweed J. Stubbs. Thurs-Sat 7 pm; closes March 5. $10. 521 W. Fourth Ave. Visit tigerdrama.com. (It's an Inlander Pick in our Feb. 24 issue — see p. 46 for more information.)
Theater Arts for Children presents a musical version of Anne of Green Gables on Fri 7 pm, Sat 4 pm and 7 pm, Sun 2 pm, continuing through March 6. $10; $5, children. TAC is at 10814 E. Broadway Ave., Spokane Valley. Call 995-6718.
NIC presents Crimes of the Heart on Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm inside Boswell Hall, 1000 E. Garden Ave., Coeur d'Alene. Call (208) 769-3220.
Christian Youth Theater presents The Little Mermaid on Fri 7 pm, Sat 3 pm and 7 pm, and Sun 3 pm; closes March 6 at the Kroc, 1765 W. Golf Course Rd., Coeur d'Alene. Call (208) 277-5727)
CYT in Spokane presents Music Man Jr. at the Bing on Fri 7 pm, Sat 3 pm and 7 pm. Tickets: $10-$14.
Shows opening this weekend include a comedy about love at Lake City Playhouse and a musical about neurotic nuns on the Civic's main stage.
In Almost, Maine (2006, off-Broadway, and just about everywhere since then), at 9 o'clock on the same frozen night, lovers pair off all over town. A couple on a park bench can scarcely say that they love one another. A broken-hearted widow stands in a guy's front yard and stares at the sky. A guy runs into his ex just outside her wedding shower, which doesn't exactly make him feel any less lonely. The playwright is John Cariani (pictured), who played the nerdy technician Julian Beck on Law & Order (2002-07) and the eager grad student in math at "CalSci" on Numb3rs (2009). Cariani is from Presque Isle in northern Maine, which we know from personal experience is a cold and dark and barren place (and is nearly where Almost, Maine is set). Performances at Lake City Playhouse in CdA on Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm. Tickets: $17; $15, students and veterans; $13, seniors; $10, student rush; $9, children. Call (208) 667-1323. See some production photos.
First you hear the voice — resonant as mahogany, smooth as late-night FM radio.
Kahlil Joseph is wrapped in his best winter clothes against the February chill, with scarf, coat and sunglasses almost obscuring the rest of him. And then you hear his voice, and then it makes sense: There’s a reason that this man who makes his living as an actor — who has done film and TV and voiceover work but is on his first national theatrical tour — has carved out a practice as a vocal and acting coach in L.A. (home to so many I-just-got-an-audition! actors). In fact, he has coached actors who have appeared in such productions as The L Word, Coyote Ugly and Clash of the Titans; he has even coached Sean Connery’s son, Jason.
Joseph — who plays the intimidating Professor Callahan of Harvard Law School in the current touring version of Legally Blonde (a show that I’ve expressed some doubts about) inspires confidence with his no-nonsense but engaging manner. He’s passionate about his craft, and he expects reporters to follow suit.
“I expect them to know as much about me as I know about them,” he says, adding that 85 percent of journalists do their homework before interviews. The rest, he says, get uninspired monosyllabic answers.
The first leg of the current tour (Sept. 21-Dec. 18) was mostly one-night stops in a blur of Southern and Midwestern towns, Joseph says: “Four weeks straight — four weeks!,” he says, “of the show getting out at 10:30 pm and being back on the bus at 6:00, 6:30, maybe 7:30 am. We perfected the art of sleeping on the bus. We pull in around 2:00, sound check’s over around 5:00, call is an hour before the show — it’s just a blur. It’s fun to see new cities, new states — but it’s challenging physically, emotionally, mentally. ---
“Most of the cast is eating out most of the time. Some eat fairly well, with their protein shakes and all, but I really try to be disciplined by making the time to buy my own groceries.”
Meanwhile, the Legally Blonde tour’s second stint goes on, Dec. 28-May 15 (though mercifully, with a much higher proportion of entire weeks, or at least split weeks, in particular cities).
“Interestingly,” Joseph says, “I have reset my body clock on this tour. Usually, I’m a guy who goes to bed at a normal hour. But if you think of a typical worker who works 9 to 6, gets home 6:30 — they’re going to sleep around 11 o’clock, with several hours to unwind ... well, if you did that on a tour ... and even as it is, I’m often up until 1:00 or 2:00 am.
“But now, I can sleep on command. I can’t do a power-nap, but if I only get four hours’ sleep, I can make up for it. Psychologically, it’s tough.
“But you know, when I went home [to L.A.] on our layoff, I’d get to sleep at a regular hour.”
On the morning of his first full day in Spokane, Joseph didn’t have to get on a bus — but he did have to do the usual round of early-morning radio and TV spots, including a chat with Verne Windham on KPBX in which he recalled how he got interested in song and dance and martial arts, all when he was just 5 to 7 years old; how he once sang in rock bands in New Delhi; and how he hopes that taking a year off from his work as an acting coach to do this tour will get him seen across the country, so that when viewers see him in film and TV, maybe they’ll remember him. (He has guested on TV series such as 24, Numb3rs, Leverage, Castle and Desperate Housewives; he did the requisite stint on a daytime soap, and he does a voiceover in Julia Roberts’s recent movie, Eat Pray Love.)
As for the movie-vs.-musical differences with Legally Blonde, Joseph admits that “film can be more subtle.” But with all the song and dance, he says, “a musical can be a more escapist and fun way of telling it.”
When Callahan comes on to Elle in the film, it’s just a hand placed on her thigh; in the musical, the harasser steals a kiss and then gets slapped — bigger gestures for bigger effects, or, as Joseph says, “the forcible kiss and the slap just pop so much better onstage.”
Actors on tour will tell you that they have a hard time uprooting their lives and staying for extended times away from their loved ones. Joseph swears by technology now. “I didn’t even have a laptop before this tour,” he says. “But I am so thankful for technology now. Skype is my mantra.”
Always having to be on, while touring, is also difficult. “When you do a TV show or shoot a movie,” Joseph says, “you can fly back home. But this is constant.
“I’ve sort of done my career in reverse,” he says, listing his roles as Jean Valjean in Les Miz (in India), and as Zach in A Chorus Line, etc.
“But the interesting thing about choosing this role in this, as you call it, ‘bubble-gum musical,’ is the chance to make something of him.”
Him is Professor Callahan, the intimidating bad guy of the piece — and Joseph is clearly on a campaign to make something of the prof other than a mere stereotype.
“When my agent told me about this role, my first question was: “They made a musical? Of Legally Blonde?’ But she said to look at the character breakdown, and it seemed to fit. At the same time, I wanted to bring my own spirit to the role.”
He talks about giving the character more charisma and intensity — but of even greater primacy is the fact that Joseph, 32 and of East Indian ancestry, is distinct from all the elderly white men you might picture when you think of “established Harvard professor.”
He’s also someone who spent 2007-08 teaching voice and acting in UCLA’s School of Theater — “So that to any naysayers [who think Joseph can’t plausibly play a professor], I can say, “Well, sir, I am a professor.”
The song “Chip on My Shoulder,” sung to Elle by her newfound love interest, Emmett, is a testament to the need for motivation: To succeed, you need to get a little bit angry. Joseph thinks it also applies to his character: If Callahan is younger and darker-skinned than the Old White Men who supposedly make up the Harvard faculty, then he must have been “very fiery,” Joseph says. “It’s like I’m out to prove myself.”
In the Spokane Public Radio interview with Windham, Joseph emphasized that Callahan “also has a chip on his shoulder. I’m the youngest actor to have played this role so far, and I want to make him compelling and charismatic, like he’s got that young fire — in effect, saying, “Look at me: I run a billion-dollar law firm. And look at you — you’re just getting started.” At the law firm, Joseph explains, “I am God, and this is my show. And I don’t know who you are” ... although Callahan’s attitude toward Elle changes, “once he realizes that she isn’t as stupid as I thought.”
While he can’t think of any other stereotypes that this production breaks, at least his Callahan is younger, “full of fire, drive, energy and charisma. The audience is going to take him very seriously.”
Joseph realizes that he’s playing the bad guy in what amounts to (my term, not his) a bubble-gum musical. What’s interesting is how hard he’s working to create a rounded characterization within the show. “The irony is that I like to play bad guys,” he says. “My Callahan is unlike all the other characters in the show. He’s not so happy-go-lucky. He has a lot of power and energy, but he is calculated, calm, still and guarded.”
Asked about how audiences for this musical vary by region, Joseph laughs and says, “When it comes to ‘Gay or European,’ they were screaming with laughter, even in the South. But it oscillates: When those two guys kiss each other [Nikos and Carlos, in “There! Right There!”], then there’s a kind of forced, quiet applause.
After the kiss-and-slap when Callahan turns into a sexual harasser, Joseph says that most audiences begin to “utterly despise me. And the hatred that comes out when I get fired from the legal team — it’s vehement. People applaud. But if you’ve cheered when I get fired, no one is happier than me. If you boo me, it would make my day.”
He has studied film villains — De Niro, Pacino, Denzel Washington in Training Day — for clues on how best to portray the bad guy. But some of his best inspiration, he says, comes from an unusual source: pro wrestling. “When the crowd is shouting, ‘Kill him!,’ that’s when I imagine that I’m like what the wrestlers call ‘the heel.’ Some actors are terrified of their own negative emotions, but I do have a dark side — and I’m not scared of it, I just channel it into my work,” he says. “When I smile, that’s when I’m at my most dangerous.
“Bad guys think that what they’re doing is right — to the point of delusion. Look at Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds — guys like that are convinced that what they are doing is right, like in that opening speech of his when he compares Jews to rats.
“Callahan is like that. He has a God complex: ‘I am God.’ He’s very grounded, and he moves slowly. He can create a great amount of tension just by moving slowly.
“My first entrance comes in ‘Blood on the Water’ — I tell my students that they have to be like sharks: find their enemies and destroy them.”
Unlike most actors, Joseph likes to watch himself work. He can be self-critical, but he doesn’t like false modesty. He’s serious about his art, wants to see himself performing it, and doesn’t understand “fake humility. It’s very detrimental to an actor. You should appreciate yourself, so long as you know how to appreciate yourself to your advantage.” What he means is having the capacity to criticize yourself as well.
“Some actors pretend that it’s abhorrent to see themselves on film: ‘Oh, no, that’s too much.’” But not wanting to see yourself work, Joseph says, is “equally as bad as someone who’s fawning all over himself. We’re all so concerned with appearances. I don’t like actors who act as if they want other people’s pity.”
He’s not looking for any pity in “Blood on the Water.” In Callahan’s entrance song a half-hour into the show — in which he demands that young law students start thinking like predatory sharks — Joseph’s short stature, plus the fact that listening from the wings dissipates the forcefulness of his voice, make him appear less than completely domineering. But the controlled movement he talked about is certainly evident — compared to all the bouncy bubble-gum girls in this show, he’s silent, self-assured, deliberate in his movements.
This may be the 142nd performance of the Legally Blonde tour, but just before a second-act entrance, there’s Joseph, straight-backed in his suit, silently mouthing the words he’s about to speak onstage, even though he’s done this scene many times before. He waves a prop cell phone around, gesticulating, warming up. He’s older than the other cast members — the veteran, dignified, a stalwart among all the backstage silliness and play. When the orchestra strikes up the entr’acte, his head pops to attention: Soon it’ll be magic time.
And sure enough, soon he’s onstage, telling Elle and the other legal interns how to approach their next case. Caught up in what isn’t exactly the world’s most subtle musical, he’s still trying to mold a subtle characterization. In his professionalism and passion for his craft, Kahlil Joseph typifies many working actors today — easy to dismiss as just “that guy you saw that one time,” fleetingly, in a guest spot on TV, perhaps, but someone who has an interesting story to tell, loads of talent and intelligence, and an unsure but rising presence in this business we call show.
Image: Kahlil Joseph, backstage at Spokane’s INB Center on Feb. 11, 2011, during intermission for Legally Blonde: The Musical — he’s wearing a kind of smoking jacket to protect his Professor Callahan costume
For more local theater news, visit stagethrust.blogspot.com.
Legally Blonde: Think pink — and Chihuahuas — because Elle is in town! It’s been nearly a decade since the Reese Witherspoon movie. Isn’t it about time you revisited Harvard Law School? (Only this time, with plenty of song and dance.) Read our skeptical preview, which cross-examines the actors who play Elle Woods and her adversary, the intimidating Professor Callahan. (Look for an interview later today with Kahlil Joseph, who plays the legal eagle, right here at Bloglander.) Performances Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm at the INB Center. Visit the WestCoast Entertainment site or call (800) 325-SEAT.
Can you spell “penultimate”? The Civic’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues in its next-to-last, still sold-out weekend, Fri-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm.
At the SCC Lair, Spokane Children's Theatre presents the Roald Dahl classic, Willy Wonka. (Will the tickets be golden?) Kevin Kuban's production continues Sat-Sun at 1 pm and 4 pm (Sat perfs both signed for the deaf); closes Sunday, Feb. 20. Tickets, in fact, are $12; $10, kids.
"It's a Date!" -- in time for Val's Day, the Blue Door improv comedians present some yucks 'n' love Friday at 8 pm. Six-Pack for Laughs presents "Expedition" (short-story improv) on Sat. at 9 pm. Call 747-7045.
Almost, Maine opens next week in Coeur d’Alene and runs Feb. 17-March 6 at Lake City Playhouse. As the Northern Lights glimmer over a frozen, remote and imaginary north Maine town, couples bicker and fall in and out and in and out of love. It’s a widely produced script (at EWU last season) written by John Cariani, the guy who played the nerdy lab tech on Law & Order.
Nunsense opens next Friday night and runs Feb. 18-March 6 at the Civic with a stellar cast: Jean Hardie, Kathie Doyle-Lipe, Abbey Crawford, Patricia Brady and Jillian Wylie, all directed by Troy Nickerson. We’ll have a preview in our Feb. 17 issue.
Privilege runs Feb. 23-March 12 at Interplayers, directed by Maria Caprile. Paul Weitz’s play sort of riffs on the Bernie Madoff pyramid-scheme fiasco, asking what the fallout would be on the (in this case) teenage sons of the Wall Street con man.
Check the theater listings in our print Calendar of Events (pp. 56-57, for example, in the Feb. 10 Sex Issue).
Interplayers has done in the last decade. Performances on Wed-Sat 7:30 pm and Sat, Feb. 5, at 2 pm. Call 455-PLAY. Read a review. Watch a slideshow.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee isn't really about spelling. It's about our anxieties while growing up — about over-protective parents, emotionally remote parents, demanding teachers and puberty, about fitting in and not fitting in and trying to do your best and being happy with yourself even if you don't. Director Kathie Doyle-Lipe's production — which will represent the Civic in March's statewide community-theater competition — is silly but also touching, and it benefits from squeezing nine singer-actors into a black-box space. Fri-Sat at 7:30 pm; no perf. Sunday; closes Feb. 20. SOLD OUT (but you can queue an hour before performances and cross your fingers). Read a Q&A with two of the actors and a review.
V-Day is coming up and the Kenworthy in Moscow, Idaho, is marking the date with performances of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues on Thurs-Fri at 7 pm and Sat 2 pm. $12; $10 if you buy in advance at BookPeople, the UI Women's Center, or Eclectica. 508 S. Main St., Moscow, Idaho. Call (208) 882-4127.
OK, so you've seen the Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp movies. So why see Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the Spokane Children's Theater version? Because it's a musical, and it's live, and because your neighbor's kid just might be playing one of the Oompa-Loompas. Sat-Sun 1 pm at SCC's Lair Auditorium, near Mission Ave. and Greene St. Closes Feb. 20. $12; $10, children. Call (800) 325-SEAT.
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.
Inlander: So what's your story? Give us the bio, Lance.
Lance Babbitt: I grew up in Idaho and did CdA Summer Theater from the ages of 12 to 18. (This was when the theater was in what is now Lake City Playhouse.) That was a great experience — 70 shows in rep, can't be beat. I went to college in Pullman — Go, Cougs! — and I had the best teacher in Paul Wadleigh. Then, after moving back here a few years ago, I was ready to dip my toe again in the local theater scene. And the Civic has been very welcoming.
Inlander: The audience-participation spellers vary every night. Do the sarcastic introductions also vary? How much improv are you and Greg Pschirrer (as the vice principal) prepared to do?