As the final production of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's 2011-2012 season, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee hits all the right notes for an end to Summer camp and back to school. -- A sprightly ensemble cast [all but one a newcomer to the ASF stage], a witty script, clever musical numbers in an assortment of styles, Peter Hicks' inventive set, and director Geoffrey Sherman's keen eye & ear that get the most out of each situation, make for a most enjoyable time in the theatre...an appealing antidote to August's heat and humidity. And an excellent way to bring the season to a close.
This Tony Award winning musical captivates from the start as we are introduced to prim & proper Rona Lisa Peretti [Eleni Delopoulos], a former winner of "the bee" and its current moderator, and the six finalists -- plus four audience members at each performance -- whose individual quirks of character go beyond stereotypes and endear them to us. Add to them Vice Principal Panch [Billy Sharpe] who reads the words & provides definitions and examples of how the words can be used in a sentence, and Mitch Mahoney [Kyle Scatliffe], a sinister-looking parolee doing community service at the event.
"The Rules" are laid out in a clever opening number that identifies each character and also gives insights into each of the contestant's techniques and strategies. The "fat kid" William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay) [Randy Blair] spells out words with his feet; Chip Tolentino [Brandon Yanez] is a super-confident past winner in a Boy Scout uniform; lisping Logainne SchwarzandGrubeniere [Liz Friolo] has two Dads (check her last name); Marcy Park [Laura Yumi Snell] continually defends herself by insisting she is "not all about business"; Leaf Conybear [John Garry] is a befuddled sort who got there by default and gets sidetracked a lot; and shy Olive Ostrovsky [Georgia Tapp] whose Mother is in India is waiting for her Dad to come from work to pay her fee. Each is indeed fodder for insensitive bullying...but not here.
These are indeed the "nerds" who are too often the focus of such bullying [notice the "Bully Free Zone" sign posted on the wall of the gymnasium where the contest is set], but here they become the most sympathetic of people -- adolescents who deal with the world around them and delight in words and their meanings. Words have been used against them for too long, so they compete more for acceptance and recognition than for a mere $200 savings bond & a trophy, much like the characters in A Chorus Line who "need this job" for self assurance. -- By the end, it is clear that winning is not the most important thing, both for the contestants and for us.
There are several stand-out moments in the ASF production: Mr. Yanez's extraordinary physical discomfort from his attraction to a young woman in the audience is not to be missed; Mr. Garry's most endearing innocence is a joy; and when Mr. Blair and Ms. Tapp begin to connect romantically and change the course of the competition, we can't help but admire them. Everyone should be able to connect with at least one of these special individuals.
While Ms. Delopolous persists in remaining stalwart, she does so with a commanding voice and demeanor. Mr. Scatliffe's parolee is by turns the most charmingly sweet person and a thug no one would want to cross -- lots of surprises here, good; and his vocal range is simply amazing.
Mr. Sharpe returns to ASF both as Vice Principal Panch and as Assistant Director & Dance Captain for "the bee"; and what a delight to see him in an understated role that affords him ample opportunities to turn a phrase, provide withering looks at the contestants, and improvise lines as needed. Welcome back.
At the opening performance, members of the audience included local WSFA-news reporter Mark Bullock who was the last of this quartet to be eliminated after unexpectedly spelling several difficult words and causing Mr. Sharpe to improvise by calling him back again and again, much to the delight of the audience.
Characterizations by this ensemble are distinct. We get involved in their lives, laugh and cry with them, and leave the theatre feeling good. They have overcome obstacles and come to terms with their lives.
Just as for Mr. Bullock, when each of the contestants misspells a word and has to leave the competition, they and we don't want them to go; they are worth more than that.