Sunday, March 25, 2012

Luke's Reviews: 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

I have a list.  A list of ten roles that I want to play in a musical one day.  On this list there are classic roles everyone knows such as Charlie Brown [You're a Good Man Charlie Brown], The Cat in the Hat [Seussical: The Musical] (which I'll get to check off the list in April!!!) and Fagin [Oliver!], and more obscure roles that only the devout theatergoers would know such as Ugly [HONK!] and Britt Craig [Parade].  However, on the top of the list is the quirky, eccentric homeschooler with a low self-esteem: Leaf Coneybear [25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee].  This means that, as you may expect, I know everything there is to know about this show, but I never got to see it live until last Saturday, where I thoroughly enjoyed Next Stage Theatre Company's production of:
Now, although I had never seen the show before, I knew everything about it.  I knew what the characters were supposed to look like, how the songs were supposed to sound, what props should be on stage, even how to spell most of the words used in the bee.  So upon walking into the theater I was a bit taken aback by everything unfamiliar, but I was kind of expecting it because I know that no two productions are the same, so I tried to keep an open mind and enjoy this unique take on the production.  And although I think I'm still in favor of the Broadway production (no shock there), there are some things about this production that I really like.  Here are some artistic decisions that I had never seen before, some worked, some really didn't:

  • Alternate Ending - Through listening to the final songs of the show and some channels of questionable legality (bootlegged Youtube videos) I was able to see the ending sequence of the musical a couple of times and was therefore shocked at the ending before my eyes.  For those of you not familiar with the show (or who have higher moral standards than I), the show ends with a quick epilogue.  Each character stands and gives a brief account of their lives after the Bee in a few sentences.  In these a few were the same (Chip's, Panche's, Rona Lisa's, & Mitch's), some were changed but remained equally hilarious (Logainne's & Leaf's) and some were just not near as good (Barfee's, Marcy's, & Olive's).  Marcy's (which was hilarious originally) was changed into something very awkward and inconsistent with her character and I can't for the life of me figure out why it changed.  As for the other two, their endings were changed largely because of the other significant change in the ending.  SOMEONE ELSE WON!!!  I know, I feel like when a show leads up to a single moment that much, such a drastic change of climax is simply unacceptable.  Whoever decided to make this switch (whether it was in their script or the directors decision) made a mistake, because there was nothing gained from it and plenty lost.
  • Say What? -- Perhaps my biggest criticism of the show is that I couldn't hear enough of it.  For some reason, the team decided to do the show without any personal mics, there was only the one at the front of the stage for the spellers and the one on the table for the moderators.  This was a mistake for a few reasons.  The biggest reason is that we couldn't always hear everyone.  Especially when there's one soloist singing above a "back-up" ensemble (Pandemonium comes to mind) the soloist would get a bit lost in the noise because one voice can't hope to over power eight.  In an attempt to avoid this unfortunate occurrence, many of the spellers were forced to sing their songs standing still in front of the mic.  For songs like I'm Not That Smart and Woe Is Me I felt like this was a real hindrance.  And finally, and this is the least important of the three, I felt like it lost some professionalism.  There's nothing I love better to start a show than the overture blaring out of the speakers so loud that you can feel the shock wave from row J.  But in this production you could see that employee on the isle with a laptop hooked up to the speakers on the stage, but she couldn't play them loud for fear of overpowering the actors.  Although this is really a nit-picky kind of thing, I feel like mics would have added. 
  •  Intermission -- Now, when I say that intermission was my favorite part of the show it's going to sound like I hated the show, but that's not true at all; they just had the best intermission of any show I've seen in my life!  After the final song of the Act 1, the moderators stepped out from behind the table and informed the audience that there was now going to be a 15 minute snack break for the spellers to refresh and replenish.  We were about to get up and head for the lobby, when we realized that none of the kids were leaving, they had their lunchboxes on stage and fully intended to have their snack break on stage and in character.  If this sounds boring, imagine 6 of the most eccentric kids you've ever seen having just been released from a stressful situation on a stage full of props with no adults, no rules, AND NO SCRIPTS!  IT WAS ABSOLUTELY HYSTERICAL!!  Everything from the intense "chubby bunny" game between Olive and Logainne, to the rebellious touching of the "no touching" sign of Chip, to Logainne  stealing Leaf's shark helmet and running around the stage singing the Jaws theme kept the entire audience in stitches the entire time.  It looked like the cast was genuinely having a fun time and the audience definitely was too.  I'm not sure if this was done in the original production, but it was a genius move by the creative staff of this show, really well done. 
  •  The Extra Goodbye -- One of the many things that makes "Spelling Bee" unique is it's utilization of audience participation.  In every show, they invite a few members of the audience to join the cast as "guest spellers" (of which me and a friend of mine were selected).  They have fun making fun of them and giving them ridiculously easy words.  Then after each "guest speller" has been humiliated enough, they hit 'em with an impossible  word or (in my case) a made up word to get them to leave.  Then they get to sing a song about how sorry they are to see us go and we get a juice box and are led back to our seat.  Since these songs make it on the soundtrack, I counted them up and deduced that they're ought to be three guest spellers (since there are three "farewell songs").  So I was surprised to see that this production had four.  My questions were answered when a contestant was eliminated and I heard the all too familiar sounds of Rogers & Hammerstein coming from the speakers.  That's right, this "lucky" guest speller got bid adieu to with the spellers singing So Long, Farewell From The Sound of Music.  Although I probably prefer the songs written for the show, I think this was a nice touch, and the extra speller gave them an excuse to use more comical words on the audience, so all in all I think it was a good decision.  Well done creative team, that's 2 for, and 1 against.
  • Jesus, is that you? -- So I knew that Jesus is one of the characters to appear in the show.  The concept, and the dialogue written for this scene is absolutely hysterical; a wonderful addition to the already uproariously funny show.  However, I didn't exactly love the way they played it in this production.  For one thing, Jesus was Mormon (stating "That Joseph Smith guy is really persuasive.  Well, at least it got me out of that Scientology phase").  Now, since there's other offensive stuff in the show I suppose I shouldn't get too hung up on this, but I just don't see the need to put it in the show.  In addition to that, the entire persona of Jesus was different.  What made the original sequence so funny is that Jesus was acting all stereotypical and angelic and saying more modern things, but in this twist Jesus was a businessman preoccupied with his cell-phone and uninterested in the conversation.  The one twist they put on the scene that I did like is having the director play Jesus; that was kind of a neat touch.  But still, all in all, I disapproved of the working of this scene.  That knocks the creative team down to 2-2.
  •  Princess Rona Lisa -- This was a gimmick that wasn't necessarily bad, but just unnecessary.  The character of the lead moderator, Rona Lisa Peretti, was, and always is, portrayed as someone very perky and perhaps a tad naive throughout the show.  This, as far as I know, remains relatively consistent throughout all productions, but it was they way they chose to show this that qualifies it to make our list.  At various points in the show, the rest of the cast would dawn animal puppets and cause Rona Lisa to have a "Snow White" kind of feel as she smiled and waved at the birds or petted the bunny rabbits.  This didn't detract much from the show, but it didn't seem to add much to me.  It was kind of confusing having all of the puppets randomly on the stage while they weren't being used, and they really served no great purpose.  I think the show could've done without them, but it really wasn't a big deal.  But it still counts, so the directing team for the show bottoms out at 2-3.
 Although the directing staff has a lot to do with the show, it's far more fun to review the actors.  All the actors in the show did outstanding, so my reviews might get repetitive, but it's my favorite part of each review, so I can't just cut it out.

THE CAST(in order of appearance)

  • Traci W. (Rona Lisa Peretti/Olive's Mom) -- I'm particularly grateful for Traci, because it was through her we got discounted tickets (friend of a friend thing, never met her myself), so I went in looking forward to her performance and she didn't disappoint.  I honestly was surprised with how small her role really was, based on the soundtrack, one would think that she was the lead of the show, but in actuality she doesn't have quite as prominent of a role as most of the spellers.  That being said, she did do an excellent job.  Her character remained very consistent throughout the entire show and although most of her songs don't do much for me (not her fault, jut the luck of the draw as Barfee would say), when she finally did get a song I liked (The I Love You Song) she knocked it out of the park.  The rest of her songs were strong, it was clear that she had a strong voice, but they're just kind of boring songs, and I often preferred looking at the spellers reactions that paying much attention to her.  This is not to say that she didn't play her character well, she played it perfectly, she just has the most normal character of the show (which is still pretty cooky).  But she really did do an excellent job.
  • Matt J. (Chip Tolentino/Dan Schwartzandgrubenierre) -- This is one character I really don't know what to do with.  Chip has possibly the strongest voice in the original Broadway cast, and yet has the most awkward story line of all of them.  So I tried to come in to this show with an open mind about the character and see how Matt would do it.  He ended up doing really well.  Although his voice wasn't as strong as the rest of the cast (to his credit, he had some of the hardest songs and, like the rest of the cast, no mic), his acting was phenomenal.  As a guest speller sitting on the stage with the cast, I was sitting next to him, and he was just so funny!  He had a soft spoken voice, but his facial expressions, general body language, and line delivery were spot on.  Granted most of his featured lines (including his solo song) are a tad inappropriate, he still did a really excellent job.  It would've been nice to have a Chip with a stronger singing voice (or at least one we could always hear), but short of that, there was nothing that Matt could've done better.  So kudos to Matt.
  • Lindsey M. (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre) - Lindsey was really great, one of my favorites in the incredibly talented cast.  She was the funnest to watch during the intermission sequence and brought that same energy to all of her scenes.  Unfortunately, the lack of microphones confined her (like most of the rest of the cast) to stand in one place for her entire song, but despite that limitation, she sang it beautifully and did a pretty great job acting it as well.  AND SHE'S ONLY A HIGHSCHOOL  SOPHOMORE!!!  This blew my mind when I found out, because she was right up there with the professionals in her performance.  My only criticism (and this is small) is that she didn't seem to keep Logainne's signature lisp all the way through the show (that or I just stopped noticing it).  But she still hit it on all the key words, so it was hardly noticeable.  All in all, beautiful job.  FANTASTIC LINDSEY!
  • Nicholas C. (Leaf Coneybear/Carl Schwartzandgrubenierre) - Nick (mind if I call you Nick?) had a lot to live up to.  As I said earlier, this is possibly my favorite character to ever be on Broadway, so I tend to be very critical of "Leaf's".  That being said, Nick nailed it.  He was so childish throughout the entire show (him and Lindsey were the best at this), he was hilarious with every delivery of every line and lyric, and he added something I have never seen (a sock puppet he always had "on hand" which he would occasionally speak to and who actually spelled the words instead of him).  Since I have seen so many "Leafs", I can say that he didn't quite deliver every line "perfectly", but all in all I must say that he is pretty darn close.  It's also worth noting that he also gave a wonderful performance as Logainne's Dad Carl (for those of you who don't know,  pretty much all of the actors double as a "flashback character" at one time or another).  His physicality, his knowledge of the character, His awesome socks (which he took the time to show all of the guest spellers), and the sublime job hitting the last note of I'm Not That Smart (which still slightly eludes me), all made for a stunning performance!
  • Chris D. (William Barfee/Olive's Dad) - Yes of course........Chris.  Chris has, by far, the most extensive resume of the cast, and that really showed in his performance.  His singing was a notch above all of the other, which was clear throughout the show but was really showcased in his performances in The I Love You Song and Second.  His acting during his non-singing moments was also nothing to sneeze at.  Some of his lines seemed a bit rushed at times (which,considering his experience, I imagine was more of a character decision than a mistake) so some of his jokes I felt didn't pack their full punch, but aside from that he did an excellent job.  He was very willing to make fun of and look his nose down at the guest spellers (he introduced himself by squirting hand sanitizer in our hands and stating "you're dirty" to each of us), and did a good job of keeping his character throughout the show.  His foot spelling was not the best I've seen, but everyone does it a little differently, so what I call inferior others may call original.  But all of these minor grievances pale in comparison to his spectacular voice!  Obviously the most trained in the group, he really pulled up every song he was in.  And his moments with Olive in the show (many of which I hadn't seen before) were really sweet.  He did a good job of striking the balance between a bit obnoxious and truly lovable.  So, huzzah for Chris.
  • Katie P. (Marcy Park) - I give Katie the honor of probably having the strongest singing voice of all the ladies in the production.  She sat directly behind me when I was on stage, so when all the cast hit the harmonies her voice was loud and clear, and I could tell that she had a well trained voice.  This was confirmed in her delightful performance of I Speak Six Languages.  Although Marcy's character causes her to be not as fun to watch as some of the other spellers, when I did watch her I was pleasantly entertained.  With the exception of a few smiles cracked at Lindsey's (Logainne's) antics during intermission, she kept her character strong the entire show, and her quick personality flop after her discussion with Jesus was beautifully executed.  I really felt myself wishing Marcy had a bigger part 'cause I kind of feel like Katie had more to give us than could fit through her character.  But nonetheless, she did do an excellent job,  and she certainly did live up to expectations.  Go Marcy!
  • Danielle G. (Olive Ostrovsky) - In writing this post and reading the program more closely, I find that I have in fact seen Danielle before.  She was nominated for a Shuler Hensley Award a few years ago, and I saw her sing "Home" [Beauty and the Beast] on TV.  Although she's gotten older (and dyed her hair), her talent still remains.  Portraying Olive is no easy task, but Danielle did a commendable job.  From her first line in the opening number I saw the character bursting from her and she never lost it throughout the entire show.  Her highlights include that opening number, her intermission antics (her and Logainne made quite a team), her touching scene with Barfee (aka: fun with anagrams), The I Love You Song (which, as Danielle told us afterwards, she apparently sang "to" my little sister), and Second where her and Chris (Barfee)'s voices blended so beautifully.  But even in the other moments of the show, she captured the insecurity of adolescents flawlessly and really made the audience feel for her from the very beginning.  She was probably the most "cute" of the entire cast (rather this is the product of the actress or the writer is hard to say, but I imagine it's some combination).  Her mousy voice in My Friend the Dictionary sounded so realistic than when she belted out The I Love You Song(which I should probably point out was also wonderfully staged) it made a surprisingly magical moment.  Danielle truly did absolutely excellent and may have even surpassed my expectations.
  • Zip R. (Vice Principle Douglas Panch) - First off....his name is Zip.....THAT'S AWESOME!  And Zip would need an awesome name, because he started the show with the cards stacked against him.  Not only did I think his character the most boring of the show (largely because he doesn't sing in the show), and his appearance is Completely different from the original.  However, Zip had more than just a ridiculously awesome name going for him, he is quite a talented guy.  His lines were absolutely hysterical and his sudden mood swing took the audience back a bit.  From the moment he smelled Rona's hair, to the time him and Mitch (I'll get to him in a sec) "step outside and spell some words", to when he finally gets a restraining order filed against him, he was absolutely hilarious!  Zip, your awesomeness goes far beyond your name, you are deeply awesome!
  • Alejandro G. (Mitch Mahoney) - As it happens this isn't my first time seeing Alejandro either; or, rather, not my first time hearing him.  For I saw his handiwork in a Center For Puppetry Arts performance last summer.  I saw then in his bio that he had done some live musicals, and so I was pretty excited to see his face in a show this time around.  Now anyone who knows the show must have caught the same disconnect I did after reading the cast list.
The original Mitch Mahoney looked like this:                  But his name is Alejandro, so he looks like this:
  •                                      So it makes sense that I was a bit taken aback.  However, it actually worked really well.  They added some cultural jokes (like when one of the guest spellers had to spell "Mexican" and really played the whole thing up, which is good.  Unfortunately, Alejandro's voice wasn't quite up to par with the role (not his fault, when I sing the songs at home I have to leave all of Mitch's songs to my little sister).  His "Prayer of a Comfort Councillor" was a bit rocky, but he fully committed to the character in his performing, so it distracted from the voice a bit.  The other songs Mitch's other songs he is meant to sing as other characters (Logainne's and Olive's dad's) were divided among some of the other guys in the show (Chris and Matt) possibly because the director didn't feel he had the singing chops, and possibly because he just wanted to keep this character the same throughout the show.  Regardless, this led to Alejandro having a relatively small part in the show who really didn't do much.  However, he did deliver some of my favorite lines in the show including his offering to Chip "I'll show you how to sell some candy".  So although he certainly wasn't one of the stronger cast members, he delivered his role without any mistakes, so it didn't take away from the performance at all.
Well, now I have one more thing that I can cross off of my bucket list.  I have seen 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  It wasn't perfect, it had it's ups and downs, but it was an experience I won't soon forget and it has made many of the songs come alive to me in a whole new way.  All in all, it was a wonderful show, put on by a very talented group of actors and actresses, and you can't go wrong with that.

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