Review: AKEELAH AND THE BEE Oozes Charm at Arena Stage

By: Nov. 21, 2015

Being that nerdy girl growing up - much more interested in books than whatever else - I always have had a bit of a soft spot for any story about spelling bees, particularly if the eventual champion is an unlikely one. So when the movie AKEELAH AND THE BEE came out in 2006, I made a point to see it. I thought that Doug Atchinson's screenplay was utterly charming and rose a cut above similar movies that show inner-city kids succeeding against nearly all odds thanks to personal drive and community and/or family support. Cheryl L. West's stage adaptation of the movie retains that same charm and heart and has the makings of perfect holiday theatre for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The play, now in production at Arena Stage, comes to Washington by way of the Tony Award-winning Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Besides Cheryl L. West, who wrote PULLMAN PORTER BLUES, which also played Arena some years back, another familiar name is attached as director. Charles Randolph-Wright is a name that should be known to those that frequent not only Broadway, but Arena Stage - he's the inaugural resident playwright, and played key roles in such productions as LOVE IN AFGHANISTAN (he wrote it), SOPHISTICATED LADIES (he directed it), and several others. Under Mr. Randolph Wright's direction, a stellar cast of Arena Stage newcomers shares the charming story in a way that is wholly believable, honest, and human.

West's adaptation captures the mood and tone of the original movie, with only minimal changes. For example, while the movie is set in Los Angeles, the play is set in Chicago. References to Instagram, Apple watches, and the like are also now included in the story, and several supporting characters have minimally altered or beefed up storylines. The changes work well for a production in 2015. At the heart of the story, we still have an eleven-year-old girl growing up in a less than ideal neighborhood and reeling from the loss of her father to gun violence - a common occurrence in her world. Akeelah (Johannah Easley) and her father had a special connection. He taught her how to spell and spent hours doing crossword puzzles together. Words remain her source of life, but it's not the same experience learning new ones without her father. The gun shots she often hears outside the window are another reminder that she no longer has the man she counted on for protection and support.

Akeelah doesn't have the kind of special relationship with her mother Gail (Aimee K. Bryant) that she did with her father. Gail works long hours as a nursing assistant and is worried about her older son Reggie (a very natural Nathan Barlow), who left school early, has the potential to fall into the wrong crowd (read: gangs), and does not yet have employment. A chance at her impoverished elementary school to compete in a spelling bee doesn't leave Akeelah very excited (the other kids make fun of her as it is), but she relents and goes along with Principal Welch's (the versatile Milton Craig Nealy) wishes. Her first win doesn't get her mother's attention, but it leads her to Dr. Joshua Larabee (an incredibly wise James A. Williams) who becomes her spelling coach. His role in Akeelah's life becomes much more than an educational one, however. He becomes her confidant and confidence booster because he has experienced much of what Akeelah has. He's been where she is - competing with kids like Dylan Chiu (Sean Phinney), complete with a stage dad (Tony Nam) and an elite private school education - and feeling inadequate and underprepared.

As Akeelah competes in various bees - all the way up to the national level - she learns much about herself, the value of family and community, and perseverance. At the same time, her story eventually encourages others in underdog positions to try to go for their dreams no matter the obstacles that might come their way. Her neighbors - Drunk Willie (Milton Craig Neely), Batty Ruth (Greta Oglesby), and even the neighborhood troublemaker JT (Darius Dotch) - her best friend, Georgia (Zaria Graham), frenemy Rhonda (a comedic Shavunda Horsley), and even fellow competitors from the right side of the tracks like Javier (Leo James) and Trish (Ana Christine Evans) rally around her to give support in a way that Akeelah did not expect.

While all of the cast members do a commendable job in portraying their well-drawn out characters in a realistic way, the younger cast members, in particular, deserve special mention. Without an Akeelah you can root for, it would be difficult to sell this story. Ms. Easley makes it easy for the audience to root for Akeelah's success and she maintains the perfect balance of precociousness, confidence mixed with doubt, and drive throughout the play. Like the other young cast members, she's older than the character she portrays onstage, but is still utterly believable.

Others too make an impression. Sean Phinney's Dylan - Akeelah's nemesis - perfectly captures a young man wanting badly to please his demanding father, but still one that has a sense of humanness hidden inside. He plays off Ms. Easley very well and their scenes together are among the most effective. Zaria Graham, as Akeelah's best friend Georgia, gives an upbeat performance that's well-suited to her character and Leo James' good-natured take on Javier is so endearing that it's easy to see why he fits in so well in both Akeelah's world and his more privileged.

The creative team wisely goes with a 'less is more' approach with the technical elements, which serves the story well. I did find some aspects of the multi-functional set (Alexander Nichols) somewhat distracting because from where I was sitting you could see designs that were meant for other scenes. For example, in scenes taking place in Akeelah's neighborhood, the set elements represent apartments. During these scenes, I could see the side of the set piece meant to represent the library in Dr. Larabee's house. Annoying, sure, but nothing that overwhelmingly detracts from a very good play. Jessica Jahn's costumes capture not only the socioeconomic background of each of the characters, but important aspects of their personalities as well. Victor Zupanc's compositions and Sten Severson's sound design are also effective in providing ambience that serves a purpose - in this case, reflecting on the world in which Akeelah and the other competitors inhabit.

All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable production and one that I would highly recommend.

Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.

AKEELAH AND THE BEE plays at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater - 1101 6th Street, SW in Washington, DC - through December 27. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 202-488-3300.

Photo: Zaria Graham, Johannah Easley, Ana Christine Evans, Sean Phinney, and Leo James. By Dan Norman.

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