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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, by William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book)
Saturday 11-6-2010
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.

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