By Ande Jacobson
Originally conceived by Rebecca Feldman as an improvisational play for The Farm, William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin worked with Feldman to flesh out “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-L-E” into a full length, one act musical – “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. After a winter workshop and a short Off-Broadway trial, adding some additional material from Jay Reiss, “Spelling Bee” debuted on Broadway in 2005. The show was subsequently nominated for six and won two Tony Awards.
Set in a school gymnasium, “Spelling Bee” is just that, a spelling bee, chronicling the six participants, along with three adults running the bee. The show boasts a tight ensemble cast, each with several solo, and ensemble vocal moments, through which we learn of each character’s quirks, dreams, and fears, and get a few life lessons in the mix. Although the competitors are school children, the show is done with an all-adult cast.
Written so that many in the cast cover multiple roles, the wild card in “Spelling Bee” is the addition of four audience participants, selected based on a voluntary questionnaire prior to the show. The volunteers are used to fill out the competition, and ensure that the show is never the same twice, allowing for some potentially very funny improvisation. An additional challenge is that even musical numbers in Finn’s jazzy-pop score won’t be played in the same order from night to night, depending on how the audience volunteers fare in the bee.
Aside from the improvisational element, live theatre can be unpredictable, and West Valley Light Opera’s production of “Spelling Bee” was hit with the unexpected. “Spelling Bee” director, Doug Baird gave a short curtain speech opening night explaining that Christine Wait, playing Rona Lisa Peretti, a former bee winner now adjudicating the competition, was injured the night before. Though expected to be back in full form by the second weekend, for opening night, Baird and choreographer Tracy Coad had to quickly restage some of the action to accommodate Wait, who performed in a wheelchair through opening weekend.
In spite of the last minute changes, WVLO’s production is still a strong one overall, and has several nice touches, starting as the audience is entering the theatre where the ushers appear to be competitors in the bee, complete with “speller numbers”. The single set depicts the school gymnasium containing a basketball hoop, a rope hanging from the ceiling, a table and chairs, a side desk and two sets of bleachers; a moveable set, and the fixed upper level atop which sits music director Bob Sunshine’s five-piece combo. Typically, the orchestra is between the first row and the stage in this theatre, so onstage placement removes the potential obstruction and gives the cast an acoustic advantage.
Wait’s performance is solid, even though her movement is restricted until she can shed the wheelchair in future weekends. She starts the lively opening number carrying the show’s title, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, first reminiscing, then introducing the audience to the competitors: Brian Miller as Leaf Coneybear, Christine Bagube as Marcy Park, Helen Gruner as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, John Eubank as Chip Tolentino, Gina DiRado as Olive Ostrovsky, and Charles Woodson Parker as William Barfee.
Sunshine has clearly rehearsed this cast well. The timing between cast and orchestra is nicely synchronized despite working blind with no video monitors, the vocals blending in some complex, close harmonies. About the only criticism is the amplification level from the vocal mikes in this number, as many in the audience covered their ears on opening night due to the volume. Fortunately, the problem doesn’t persist in later numbers.
The audience volunteers, playing children, are called to stage after the opening number to fill out the competition.
The other “adults” are Vice Principal Douglas Panch, the moderator of the bee, played by Shawn Bender, and Mitch Mahoney, the comfort counselor, played by Nes Fragoso. Bender, in a non-singing role (at least he has no featured songs), has some very funny improvisational moments with the audience volunteers as the bee progresses. Fragoso has the opportunity to show both his acting and vocal chops through several heartfelt moments.
All of the ensemble numbers are balanced and tight vocally, and even with modified choreography on several of them opening night, the cast executes well. A particularly nice bit of dancing occurs in “Magic Foot”, Barfee’s number detailing his unique spelling methodology, when the full company joins him in a weaving kick line. The additional challenge for Coad, was designing the choreography to include any audience spellers still in the competition, the cast ready to guide them, without distracting attention from the scene. This aspect works fairly well, although there are times when the audience might notice a cast member unobtrusively prepping an audience speller prior to a number.
Bagube also shows solid vocal depth in her breakout moment when her character changes from being an automaton to becoming multifaceted. Coad complements the vocal, showcasing Bagube’s dance background nicely, with several flourishes embedded in the number.
Although all of the spellers are very eccentric and amusing, Miller and Parker, in particular, have solid comic timing that is well utilized throughout the show.
While a strong production that will get better through the run, the show is not without a few small issues. Some of the solo vocals aren’t quite as strong as the full ensemble numbers, in part lacking support from the rest of the company in DiRado’s case, use of a character voice in Gruner’s case, or because the songs seem slightly out of the singers’ ranges as is the case with parts of Miller’s and Eubank’s songs causing a few lyrics to be lost. Even so, being such capable performers, they are able to “sell” their songs in spite of the few difficulties, and make their characters believable.
Sunshine’s orchestra overall has a very nice blend, and while there were a few missed notes opening night, in Finn’s musical style, they just give the music a little more of an improvisational feel.
There also were some missed light cues on opening night causing some soloists to start singing in the dark. Most likely, these were due to the last minute blocking changes without having time to run them all before the show.
In spite of the opening weekend difficulties, “Spelling Bee” is worth seeing and should spell success for WVLO as it continues Fridays – Sundays through 9 April 2011.
See http://www.wvlo.org for more information or to order tickets.