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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

a Musical Comedy
CATEGORY :
by Rachel Sheinkin, Rebecca Feldman, and William Finn

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 1728

SHOWING : August 20, 2006 - September 16, 2006

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

Join the fun as a bleacher-full of spellers (including some audience members) vie for the title in this Tony-winning Musical. This company will be the first National Tour of this show.


CAST & CREW LIST
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REVIEWS

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Can You Spell O-V-E-R-P-R-O-D-U-C-E-D?
by Dedalus
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
4.0
Before I launch into the soapbox rant with which I’m focusing this essay, let me first say that I went into “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at the Alliance with the highest expectations. I am a long-time fan of songwriter William Finn, and I adore the original cast recording of this show. For the most part, the Alliance’s production met my expectations. (A momentary D-I-G-R-E-S-S-I-O-N – This isn’t really an Alliance Production – it’s really the first National Tour with an entirely New York based cast and production team, and with most of the cast members having a credit as an Understudy of the Original Cast.) The production was fast-paced, exciting, tremendously funny, sometimes moving, and ultimately satisfying. The script actually makes some salient points about growing up, competition, and being mature. It hits all the right notes in its observations about adolescence – one hysterical song in particular will ring true to anyone who was ever a 12-year-old boy forced to leave class holding his books in front of himself.

My problem with this show is that it is a small chamber musical given a big-budget razzle-dazzle over-the-top treatment. Not that I have anything against razzle-dazzle – it’s just that here, it is distracting and actually lessens the impact of what should have been some perfect theatrical moments.

I’ll look at two moments in particular. One of the conceits of the play is that the contestants’ memories and fantasies are staged for us, as if we couldn’t imagine what they were talking about. All the cast members take turns playing parents and other grown-ups. At one point, one contestant says a little prayer, to which Jesus himself steps forwards and responds. The scene builds to a beautifully observant one-liner. It’s a very short scene, not more that two minutes in length, and, between the exquisitely painted sky-and-cloud backdrop, the tons of fog (including wisps coming out of Jesus’ sleeves), and the dozen-or-so lighting cues, it must have cost in excess of $1,000. And it would have worked better with a simple voice-over, better because we wouldn’t be distracted by recognizing one of the other contestant-actors playing Jesus.

The other moment was even more distressing to me. There’s a song in the show (“The I Love You Song”) which comes when a contestant, neglected by her parents, imagines her parents poring effusive love over her when she is asked to spell “Chimerical.” Every time I hear the song, it’s an emotional pile-driver to the solar plexus – one of those songs that doesn’t lose its effect with repeated listenings. When the moment comes in the play, we are treated to a beautiful backdrop of the Taj Mahal (Irrelevant except that the character’s mother is at an Ashram in Bombay – and who doesn’t know that the Taj Mahal is really a tomb hundreds of miles from Bombay?). We see one actress wrap a pseudo-sari around her head to become her “Mother” while another actor we recognize as the street-wise and thugly “comfort counselor” takes on the role of father. The song is still sad, but doesn’t have the impact of hearing it and imagining what the character is imagining. The dozen or so lighting cues throughout are definitely pretty, but, again, they are at the service of razzle-dazzle, not at the service of the character and script and moment.

To underscore my point, a friend who had seen it before I did described it as nothing but “eye candy” with no depth or substance whatsoever. That the razzle-dazzle hid the real virtues of the script and music for this theater-savvy friend is hard evidence that it was too much.

Leaving the play, I was filled with good feelings about what I’d just seen, remembering all the hilariously pointed laughs, the diamond-sharp characterizations. But I was also feeling a little bit dirty, as if a favorite painting had been pimped up with day-glo highlights. I realize that the reality of the Broadway Commercial Theatre requires big bucks to be conspicuously spent and on display. But I also couldn’t help thinking that, had this particular play been scaled way-way down, it just might have beaten “Spamalot” for that Tony. I anticipate that it will find its footing when it goes to the smaller-budgeted regional and community theaters. Indeed, it’s good to remember that sometimes L-E-S-S can be M-O-R-E.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

P-O-S-T-S-C-R-I-P-T – I saw on the ATML line that Onstage Atlanta is casting a production of William Finn’s “A New Brain” – look for it to see what less Razzle-Dazzle can do for a play! I know I’m looking forward to it ….
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Well, of course it was overproduced! by bellsplayer
That's what we want when we pay $65 to see a show at the Alliance (even if it is a tour). The original Broadway production was just as overproduced and just as wonderful. I enjoyed both equally.

That being said, I have some major criticism of the tour. Mostly the local flavor aspects. The original show is set in Putnam County, New York, a very densly populated part of Metro NYC. The tour had students claiming to be from schools in the Atlanta area, or at least schools named the same as Atlanta area schools. That made me think maybe the show was being set in Putnam County, Georgia, a sparsly populated rural county between Madison and Milledgeville (where?). But I don't know why students from Atlanta would compete in a county spelling bee all the way out there. I just got really tired of all the local references from Flip Spiceland to Shirley Franklin.

Regarding the India scene and the Jesus scene, I thought the tour's treatment of the India scene was better than the original although the set was not as nice. I wondered how they would do the Jesus entrance since the OBP had him entering at the back of the house (which all could see because of the shape of the theater). I thought that was more effective since he didn't come to the stage, but I liked the way they staged it here, too.

But even this production proves that body mikes in a smallish house just don't work. I heard a resounding 'pop' when Leaf's helmet got hit each time, but had trouble hearing some of the dialogue. The reverb effects weren't really all that good either.

Overproduction, however, is exactly what this member of the theater-going public wants to see. If I want theater of the mind, I'll read a book.

jd
We're Probably on the Same Page, But .... by Dedalus
Oh that this too-too stolid cybercommunication would reveal half the non-verbal clues face-to-face discussion would!

I suspect we're pretty much on the same page here. Although I focused my essay on vaguely negative points, I too really loved this production (I did give it four stars after all). And we're definitely on the same page with head mikes. What was the one-line joke in Leaf Coneybear's epilogue? (Have you heard the "Forbidden Broadway" parody featuring Ethel Meman vs "Sunset Boulevard"? It's a true hoot).

Actually, I love over-the-top razzle-dazzle when it's appropriate -- I can't imagine "Les Miz" without the barricade or "Phantom" in a Black Box (though I trust ... and hope ... some day a small-budget theatre will). But let's face it -- "Spelling Bee" is essentially an 8-character 1-set play and anything else is icing on the cake. And, like cake, too much icing can come across like too much icing.

As to your comments about Razzle-Dazzle being what you go to the theatre for, I can only hope you're being snarky -- it does rather belittle the contributions of writers and actors and all the other stuff. And, if some of the expense is held back, mayhap ticket prices would drop. A bit. (Since I see most plays freeloading as an usher, I tend to forget how much it really costs to be an average audience member.)

In any case, I was hoping my own snarky little review would start a discussion ... and I thank you for attempting to keep it going. {insert disappointed sigh here.} Do you suppose it would go over well if I posted all my reviews on the ATML line? Maybe it would start discussions that have some meat (and wouldn't bore the moderators) :-).

Thanks again for your response!

Brad
Actually, no, we're not on the same page. by bellsplayer
We should probably continue this in the forum.

jd


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