SHOWING : November 04, 2010 - November 21, 2010
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A quirky group of six adolescent outsiders vie for the spelling championship of all time, under the tutelage of three equally quirky grownups. This hilarious tale of overachievers’ angst shows these unlikely heroes learn that winning isn’t everything, and losing doesn’t make you a loser. This Tony Award-winning musical debuted on Broadway in 2005. Who knows?… you just might be invited on stage to compete in The Bee yourself! Recommended for ages 13 and up.
Rated PG due to some adult content.
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Under its S-P-E-L-L|
Thursday, November 25, 2010 ||
A few years ago, I took the Alliance’s production of William Finn’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” to task for piling on razzle-dazzle that upstaged the characters and story. Now, here comes Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s more scaled-down version, and (surprise surprise), I liked it in-Finn-itely more!|
Since every theatre in town seems to be doing this show, a little background may be in order. Starting out as a small improvisational one-act called “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” it was produced by The Farm, a New York comedy Troupe. Composer William Finn (“Falsettos,” “A New Brain”) saw the production and convinced playwright Rebecca Feldman work with him to create a full-length musical. Workshopped and developed extensively by the Barrington Stage Company, it eventually found its way to off-Broadway and finally, in 2005, to Broadway, and, apparently, everywhere else.
Set in a high school gym in geographically ambiguous Putnam County (allowing for numerous local references and ad-libs), the show follows six eccentric kids, three equally eccentric adults, and four selected-at-random audience members as they compete to win the spelling bee. Keeping its Improv-roots intact, topical and local references and jokes abound, and the monitor of the bee is given free rein to use the increasingly eccentric words in increasingly eccentric usages – when asked to use the word “Mexican” in a sentence, his response is “We went to Home Depot to pick up a sack of mulch and a Mexican.”
There is a serious undertone to the piece as each of the contestants represents a different aspect of some family dysfunction -- parental neglect, too-high-expectations, large-family put-downs (“Dumb Kid!”), over-hovering parents (in this case, two Dads), and so forth. In fact, in contrast to how hard we laugh at some of the excesses of the bee itself, the songs can be down-right serious, and “The I-Love-You Song” in particular (in which the neglected girl conjures the chimerical image of her parents lavishing her with affection) never fails to move me to tears. Throughout, the cast drops in and out of supporting roles in the contestants’ memories and fantasies (including a dryly affectionate Jesus).
Where I thought the Alliance production mis-stepped was in dazzling us with hundreds of light cues, flashy colors, back-drops, and even fog effects, upstaging the group of kids who were just trying to win a bee. I thought it was the technological equivalent of a walk-on player shamelessly mussing to upstage the stars. Here, the light cues are limited to isolation moments and highlights, and the action remains firmly grounded in the gymnasium, giving the actors and the stories full focus.
As to the actors, most was as good as, or better than the Alliance troupe, with Jimi Kocina’s Leaf Coneybear, Leslie Bellair’s Marcy Park, Jono Davis’ Chip Tolentino, Nick Morrett’s William Barfee, and Kara Harrington’s Olive standing out among the kids. Now that I look at that last, it’s pretty much the entire cast. The one mild exception, I thought, was the actress who played Logainne Schwartzandgrubennier, who in addition to the usual lisp, put her voice so high up into the nasal zone that most of her lines (and lyrics) were a tad hard to understand.
As for the adults, Mary Kathryn Kaye, Shane Desmond, and Bradley Bergeron were all excellent, and each had their many moments to shine. Seamus Bourne’s set and Mary Parker’s lights made for a compellingly believable gymnasium (I loved how the school mascot images even found their way into G.E.T.’s lobby), director Alan Kilpatrick kept his ensemble moving briskly through their paces, and music director Linda Uzelac did her usual fine job of orchestrating voices and orchestra, making the songs seem fresh and new, even for those of us who have heard them hundreds of times.
This is a show I have a lot of affection for, with its wildly off-beat humor, its joy in spelling and wordplay, its grounded emotional core, and its portraits of youthful eccentricity. I like how time and locale keeps some of the improved material fresh, and how different audiences bring different qualities to the “guest speller” roles.
And I really love how “The I-Love-You Song” never fails to make me cry. This production had me under its spell from beginning to end!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
Postscript: I can’t end without saying a word about the bowdlerization of Chip’s “My Unfortunate Er%^&ction” number to “My Unfortunate Distraction.” This change has allegedly been authorized by the authors, but, knowing the original so well, it really jarred, especially since the changed lyrics themselves and the staging made it abundantly clear what he was singing about. Since this is an particularly “truthful” song – what young male almost-adolescent has NOT experienced this? – the change struck me as a bit of want-my-cake-and-eat-it-too hypocrisy. This is a play about the joy of words and language, and here we are, hiding behind euphemisms and mis-directions. I sincerely hope the authors change their minds about this “authorized” adjustment.
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With All the Fun Intact|
Sunday, November 21, 2010 ||
Georgia Ensemble Theatre's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" presents the show winningly. All the comedy is there, with some of the heartfelt emotion. The production, however, is marred by the sound design of Bobby Johnston. Sound is muddy, especially for the near-grating voice of Kelly Chapin Schmidt as Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere, and the band occasionally overpowers the voices. Reverb is added at times, particularly in the "I Love You" number, and it adds nothing except obtrusiveness.|
The main performances of everyone are good, if not better. Mary Kathryn Kaye has just the right look and bearing for top real estate agent and spelling competition buff Rona Lisa Perretti. Jimi Kocina brings his gawky grace and great comic timing to Leaf Coneybear. Bradley Bergeron embodies the menacing yet gentle Mitch Mahoney, while Jono Davis makes an acceptable Chip Tolentino. When these actors drop into other roles, though, they fall down on the job. Ms. Kaye and Mr. Bergeron make no impression in the "I Love You" sequence, which was a highlight in the recent Rosewater Theatre production. Messrs. Bergeron and Kocina are too distinctive in looks to be effective when they portray Logainne's two dads. Jono Davis is betrayed as Jesus by the blocking of director Alan Kilpatrick, since he basically strolls on from the audience with only a little heightened lighting to bespeak divinity. Part of the fun of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" should be seeing actors in multiple roles. Here, it's mostly ineffective.
The only good dual-role acting I saw came from the Coneybear siblings, who appear briefly in a couple of sequences. Leslie Bellair, as Marcy Park, is initially a humorless automaton of a speller with hidden depths (and great acting, singing, and dancing skills). Nick Morrett, as William Barfee, brings originality and great energy to his role. Kara Harrington, as Olive Ostrovsky, brings delicacy and great heart to her unparented character. When they portray Leaf Coneybear's dismissive siblings, though, they momentarily transform into snarky, brash characters. I particularly liked the contrast between Kara Harrington's nail-polishing Marigold Coneybear and her slumping Olive Ostrovsky.
Production values are good, as they always are at Georgia Ensemble Theatre. The set, by Seamus M. Bourne, ably impersonates a school auditorium. I particularly liked the frosted windows on either side. Lighting design, by Mary Parker, works well without bringing undue attention to itself. The band plays well. Choreography, by Ricardo Aponte, adds a lot of pizzazz to the proceedings and never seems obvious or trite, rather seeming inevitable and delightful.
A lot of the humor in the show comes from the audience participants. They are handled with great skill by the entertaining Shane Desmond as Douglas Panch. His Panch had a paunch and a pinch of a penchant for punching contestants down to size. The humor comes through undiluted in this production. The emotional heart is less successful in shining through. Still, all in all, this is a fine production. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
Sunday, November 7, 2010 ||
I am very familiar with this show and I enjoyed this production immensely. "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a popular show in Atlanta theatre, this season. At the risk of comparing this production to the others I've seen (in and out of Atlanta), I can viably say that you really cannot compare this production to the others; they gave this show a new sense of originality. It was a breath of fresh air to a bee that was slowly becoming stale in the southeast.|
The set was your typical school gymnasium. I loved the inclusion of a mascot and the rotating bleachers; very nice touches. This was the first production I've seen where the band was also on stage with the actors. I noticed that all of the band members were wearing the same outfits, I just wish they were in a little more of the action, since they are sitting center stage. I also had much trepidation about the actors getting swallowed up by the band, but there was a perfect balance of sound. I heard and understood everything.
I'll go through each of the characters/actors, as the reviewer did before me. I think it's a good way to show the pros and cons of the production.
-Barfee: He was fantastic. I did not see his interpretation in The Rosewater Theatre's production, but I thought his Barfee was calculated, charming and very much a loud-mouthed pre-teen. Normally, Barfee is a slobbering, sloppy, prick, but I like what the actor gave to the character. With a slight accent and a pinch of likability, I was rooting for him to win the Bee from the very beginning. "Magic Foot" was one of my top three favorite numbers, as well. *See side note at bottom.
-Olive: This actress was an odd pick, but she turned out to be spot-on with the character. I got a chance to talk to the actress after show and she was just the sweetest girl too. Her Olive was awkward, shy, and innocent. Her actions were very unpredictable, which made her spot-on as a young child. She was like the kid who never said a word, but could beat up every one of the spellers if she had to. "The I Love You Song" was nice. She didn't belt out the high notes, whether she couldn't or it was a choice, it still worked. Her facial expressions in the song are what made the number so powerful. *See side note at bottom.
-Chip: I thought he was perfect. This actor made Chip a likable and innocent kid with just enough bite that wasn't too over the top; he wasn't the typical, cocky jerk, which was refreshing. I actually felt really bad when Chip was eliminated, normally I could care less. "Pandemonium" was, hands down, my favorite number of the show. I was shocked when I heard the "cleaner" version of "Chip's Lament" (I was aware that it existed, I've never heard it though), but the actor does a superb job of commanding the stage and making the song his own. By the end, the audience was obviously on Team: Chip. This kid has a set of lungs, you will not be disappointed. *See side note at bottom.
-Logainne: What a terrific interpretation of this character. Like Chip, she really went out of the box and made the character more likable and less whiny. I wasn't sure how I liked the cutesy look (we kind of already see that in Olive), but now I really can't think of any other look to that character. "Woe is Me" was a hysterical number, especially now that they've included the two dads in the choreography. Her lisp was understandable and a pinch of her political status was still there. I'm actually not a fan of this character because she's normally too overbearing for me, but this actress an absolute delight. *See side note at bottom.
-Leaf: This was the only actor I was vaguely familiar with, prior to seeing this show. I won't compare with previous work, but let's just say that I'm a fan. I thought his Leaf was great. He wasn't a special needs child, nor was he mentally impaired, he was just an innocent home-schooled kid who really did not have a clue. Many productions focus too much on Leaf's goofiness, they forget to add any sense of reality to the character. This Leaf was very much a human being that just wants to be himself. His other character, Logainne's dad, was hysterical. I only wish there was a little more maliciousness from him. It seemed a little out of place that his lovable character would try to sabotage a spelling bee. *See side note at bottom.
-Marcy: Who is this girl? She was the perfect Marcy Park. I have yet to see an actress who could play the piano to her own song. She was fantastic. I believe she has only of the hardest characters in the show because she remains very one-dimensional until she final number. But this actress has such a presence that, even when she's not talking, your eyes are still focused on her. This made Marcy a very unpredictable figure that keeps you intrigued until she does something. My family loved "I Speak Six Languages". Her scene with Jesus was also a highlight, as well.
-Rona: I thought she was fine. She didn't not have a powerhouse voice, but she made up for it with her sassy and witty commentary as moderator. This actress has very good chemistry with Panch, as well. Of the three singers in "The I Love You Song", she was the weakest, but that doesn't mean she was terrible. I thought she was fine. Although, that number lacked any kind of emotional punch but I don't think it was her fault. She has a beautiful voice and I thoroughly enjoyed her uptight demeanor. Rona, in my opinion, is one of the more challenging characters in the show because she flip flops between moderator and back-up singer to the spellers. It's odd, but this actress does it seamlessly.
-Panch: This was the best Panch I have ever seen. His dead-pan delivery was spot-on. He had a touch of vulnerability, a pinch of psycho, and a dab of insecurity. In the productions I've seen of "Bee", Panch is only used as a tool to give spellers their words, but this Panch actually had depth. We were with him through the entire bee and we could understand his frustrations with the ignorance that the spellers occasionally gave him. He had great chemistry with Rona and all of the spellers. I only wish they gave him a greater moment to shine, since we found out he could sing in the last number of the show.
-Mitch: Of all the characters, this actor gave the clearest performance of this character's journey. He started out as a grumpy, uptight, convict and ended up a lovable, likable comfort counselor. I probably couldn't say this about any other scenario, but I thought his portrayal worked with this production. Normally, the over the top-ness would not mesh well with the chemistry of this show. But the spellers do a good job at remaining realistic and grounded, so his overbearing presence was much needed. His voice is fantastic, as well. His turn in "The I Love You Song" was his standout moment.
*Side note: What I enjoyed most about this production was that the actors (or director?) took these established characters and flipped them on their heads. By not playing these characters how they're typically played, it made for a greater sense of depth. The audience was emotionally invested in every single one of the spellers. Sure, Chip is normally an arrogant jerk, Barfee is normally a sloppy hot-head, Logainne is normally a blazer-wearing politician, etc. These actors did a great job of breaking the mold of these characters' stereotypes can giving them a wonderful sense of originality and ownership. It made for an exciting and unpredictable evening at the theater.
Although, in the previous critic's defense, I can understand how someone who is familiar with this show can find these changes a bit jarring. But if all you do is compare productions and then call it a review, then your shortchanging the actual production and anyone who wants to see the production. I, for one, loved what they did with this show. The added sense of depth, the selected words to spell, and the mood of this production made for a darker "Bee", but it was still recognizable and captured the heart of the show.
High points: The twist on characterization, the sense of originality (in characters and musical interpretation), the choreography, and the darker tone of the show.
Low points: The lack of inclusion of the band (they sounded great, though) and the lobby could have used a little more artwork.
In the end, I would recommend this production to anyone. With the "cleaner" versions to some of the numbers, I would even bring the whole family. But if you're going into this theatre comparing it to other "Bees" and expecting to see some familiarity, you'll be sorely disappointed. This was one of the best productions of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" I've seen in a long time. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
Saturday, November 6, 2010 ||
Let me just start by saying this is one of my favorite shows. I saw it on Broadway twice and have seen every Atlanta production so far: Alliance, Rosewater, Fabrefaction, and now this theater company. |
Last night I took the wife and kids to see "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at GET and I must say I was far from impressed. My wife and I are big fans of this theater company and we were both expecting to be blown away by this production, but were disappointed.
The biggest disappointment was Rona Lisa Peretti- she was just terrible! But I will go down the list of characters so you can see what I thought of everyone.
Rona Lisa Peretti: When I was reading her bio, I found I actually had seen her in a few productions in Atlanta before- I never cared for her... Why is she still getting work in musicals?
In this performance, I believed she did nothing with her character. She simply memorized her lines and just spoke when she had to. Isn't Rona Lisa Peretti supposed to be an old spelling bee champion who is proud, excited, and almost snooty in a champion's type of way?? That was not there at all! Also, she completely butchered my favorite song from the show: "The I love you song" Not only did she alter the rhythm of the beginning "oohs" (which was made obvious as the band was playing the music correctly), but she couldn't handle the song vocally and was drowned out by the band and two other people singing with her. My kids were squeezing my hand, asking me when it would be over, every time she opened her mouth sing. H-O-R-R-I-B-L-E casting decision!!! If I was the director I would have gone to Rosewater's production over the summer and snatched up their Rona Lisa. That girl could sing like no other- and she had the character down!
Doug Panch: He was a lot better than the Panches I have seen around town. He delivered the lines in a monotone way, as I believe they should be delivered. I liked how we was generally impartial to all of the spellers. Also, we got to her him sing at the end- he had an ok voice. However, he was not a standout or all that memorable.
Mitch Mahoney: Not the best or the worst in the cast. He had a good voice, but sometimes sounded like he was going to crack during the songs. I liked him best as one of the dads to Logainne. As the comfort counselor, I didn't believe him as a scary enforcer, out on parole type. And when he sang "The I Love You Song" I thought he was way too young to be Rona's husband- but that was not his fault. I did like how they made the comfort counselor into a biker guy, I thought that was clever.
Marcy Park: I love this girl! She was superb as Marcy at Rosewater and even better in this production! She has an excellent voice and was fun to watch. I have seen her in other productions in Atlanta: Mulan and Singin' in the Rain and believe there is no part she can't handle. The girl is just amazingly talented! Six Languages was one of my favorite numbers last night.
Olive: I saw her in the Music Man two years ago and didn't even recognize her last night. What a great job she did! I thought she was a great Olive. I liked her voice a lot, except during the "yes I do" in the duet with Barf. I just wished she would have gone a bit further with her character; I wanted her to blow me away towards the end, but it wasn't there. I always thought Olive was suppose to get stronger and less awkward, but she didn't really do that...
Logainne: Of all the productions I have seen of Spelling Bee (in Atlanta) she is my favorite Logainne. I thought she was sweet, cute, and trying very hard to please her dads- which was just great! My kids loved her. The car ride home last night was filled with "lisping" conversations! The only thing I didn't like: sometimes it sounded like she was going to fizzle out vocally. She needs to pace herself better with her song- because that is a tricky number.
Chip: Second to Rona, he was my least favorite. He didn't play Chip as the smart ass, returning champ, horny kid that he is- he was just blah. Oh and the vocal riffs he did during his "unfortunate distraction"- yuck! I didn't know what was worse, the fact that he sang "distraction" or that he did those vocal runs. It was not a pop song!! I was enjoying his voice at first, especially during "Pandemonium", but what he did with the other song was just not fitting to the character.
Coneybear: Eh. He was alright, but definitely not my favorite. Where was the over the top, not that smart, crazy Coneybear? This kid was just there wearing a helmet! Also, his singing was irritating me- he was randomly nasal throughout the show- was that him or was it a character choice? I did not care for it either way. His alter ego, the dad to Logainne was disappointing! As my wife put it: Where was his evil, determined to make his kid win, super queen side? He did not do justice to his characters. I wish the kid from Rosewater could have done this part again- except he was playing Barf!!
Barfee: This kid is incredible! He nailed Barfee. I loved everything he did- his singing, his acting, and the way he spelled the words with his foot! It was refreshing to see Barf played differently from the original production- as so many people have been doing lately. Just an incredibly talented kid!
Overall, this production was ok. Marcy Park and William Barfee were the clear standouts. If you choose to see this show, it will be for those two. The rest of the cast, with the exceptions of Rona and Chip are quite good. The choreography was excellent and the set was very authentic looking. I liked the side banners showing off the school mascot. Also, the band was quite good. However, because of the two weak links I had previously mentioned, I can say this show was just ok. I just have to say this: If they were able to pull Marcy Park and Barfee from the Rosewater production, why couldn't they do that with Chip and Rona? [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
| || distracted by Chip's unfortunate distraction? by Okely Dokely|
| Seeing as how you brought your children to this production, I should think you'd be glad that the alternate "cleaner" lyrics to Chip's Lament were being used.|
| || Agreed by I love musical theater|
| I completely agree. I loved both Marcy and Barf. I saw Leslie Bellair (Marcy) in Mulan and Nick Morrett (Barfee) in Hairspray and am floored by why they did not receive Suzi nominations. I hope they do receive nominations for this show! They definitely deserve it. |
Also, regarding the lyrics to Chip's song: they chose to do the alternative version. Which isn't as good as the original but it wasn't Chip's decision.
And yes, after seeing this production I would have preferred Jennifer Waldman (the Rosewater Rona) in the role, as her voice and look were much better suited.
[REVIEW THIS PRODUCTION]
by Elton John (music), Tim Rice (lyrics), and Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, David Henry Hwang (book)
Atlanta Lyric Theatre