BWW Review: Blackfriars' Summer Intensive Presents THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
To an outsider, the world of competitive spelling may not seem like one that's brimming with tension and intrigue. When one thinks about worlds that are rife for dramatization, a myriad of source material seems more plausible; but I suppose Mormon missionaries, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the life of Alexander Hamilton also seemed odd choices at-a-glance for stage adaptation, and things turned out ok for those musicals. Though competitive spelling is at the heart of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", that's not what makes "Spelling Bee" so compelling; it's the cast of eccentric characters, their personal baggage, and how that baggage informs their drive to excel at spelling that makes the show so heartwarming. Blackfriars Theatre's production of "Spelling Bee" is as touching and wildly funny a production as you'll find on any professional stage, made more impressive by the fact that the cast, and the bulk of the artistic team, are local college students.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin), which is Blackfriars Theatre's 2019 Summer Intensive production, tells the story of a group of oddball youngsters competing at a spelling bee in a fictional middle school, toggling between the competition in the present and flashbacks of the various spellers' family dynamics and home life, giving the audience a glimpse into the psychology and motivations of the cohort of peculiar characters. Chip Tolentino (Alexander Christie), the self-confident reigning champion who's clashing with the effects of puberty at the worst possible time; Olive Ostrovsky (Bridget Welch), whose father is chronically late and whose mother has pilgrimed to India; Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Savannah Devlin), the politically woke speller whose overbearing fathers have made anything but perfection unacceptable; Leaf Coneybear (Alec Ewing) the spacey son of hippies who makes his own clothes and landed at the bee on a whim; William Barfee (Garrison Hunt), the allergy-prone speller with the "magic foot" who develops a crush on Olive; and the cast's standouts Mitch Mahoney (Joseph Greenan), an ex-convict who's at the bee performing community service, and Ms. Rona Lisa Peretti (Melanie McBride), the quirky moderator who herself was once a spelling champion, both of whom deliver outstanding vocal and acting performances. If you're familiar with "Spelling Bee", you know that audience involvment is also one of the show's hallmarks, bringing strangers on stage to participate--and playfully act as the butt of jokes--in the bee.
All the actors brilliantly channel the peculiarities of their characters, but it was important to director Danny Hoskins that the spellers still be real people. "We encouraged the actors to make strong choices at their auditions because these characters are unique", says Hoskins, "but it was important that they remember that these characters are also REAL PEOPLE, they're not cartoons. They just happen to speak and act differently that most of us."
"Spelling Bee" was the perfect choice for BT's Summer Intensive program, which utilizes the talents of local student--mostly college theatre majors--for not only the actors on stage but the designers, technical directors, and stage managers. The actors firstly must be on the younger side to convincingly play elementary school students, but more importantly, the modest size of the cast (only nine) allowed for a more intimate educational experience during the rehearsal process. "Every summer we try and use unique tools and exercises during rehearsals", says Hoskins. "Because this cast was so small, we were able to focus on the individual acting process and delve into real character exploration."
My only nitpick is that the production would benefit greatly from the addition of a full band. The Blackfriars orchestra for this production features only piano and drums, which culminates in a thin sound that doesn't quite do William Finn's marvelous score justice. But the joy of watching and listening to the talented cast of students more than compensates for the somewhat sparse sounds coming from the pit.
Blackfriars Theatre's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is the perfect blend of heartwarming and hysterical, showcasing the extraordinary talent of young Rochester theatre artists. The show runs until July 21st; for tickets and more information, click here.