The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
The opening of Boston's very own company of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee gave me occasion to revisit the show, which I first saw over a year ago in its Broadway incarnation. At the time, I posted my feelings on a message board:
"The show is very, very funny. Very funny. Hilarious. The performers are all fantastic, landing every joke, nuance, and song. But ... but ...
"Well, you can feel the show's roots in improv. The characters are all fully realized, and the situation is funny, but there's not a whole lot of depth. Any 'journey' a character takes happens in typical William Finn 'one song epiphany' style. There's not much of a through line or an arc to the evening."
While all of this is still true, it didn't bother me nearly as much the second time around. Perhaps because I knew what I was in for, I was more able to simply sit back and laugh, which is exactly what I did.
The cast assembled for the Boston production is every bit as good as the New York originals, in a few cases even better. Betsy Wolfe, as host and former spelling champion Rona Lisa Peretti, provides the perfect center to the exuberantly chaotic goings-on at the Bee, a mothering presence who nonetheless has a touch of zaniness herself. She's joined on the adult side of the proceedings by two excellent character actors: Daniel Pearce, pathetically hilarious as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, and James Monroe Iglehart, striking both fear and comfort into the hearts of spellers and audience members alike as comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney.
Each of the "kids" is a standout in his or her own right. To single out a few: Sara Inbar, as the earnestly dorky, politically-active Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, is so perfect in her role that I hoped this time she might win despite the script. Stanley Bahorek's Leaf Coneybear, the weirdest of the weird kids assembled, manages to be entertainingly odd in an entirely different manner than Jesse Tyler Ferguson was on Broadway. Jared Gertner captures the nuances of William Barfee, the loser who has convinced himself that winning is better than having friends, without being quite as creepy as Dan Fogler was in the part. The result is a character who's just as memorable, but considerably more likable and easy to root for.
James Lapine's direction keeps the show moving along at an exciting pace, and he's adapted the show well to a more traditional proscenium setup. The design team transfers the show's gymnasium feel to theatre well, with Beowulf Boritt's set extending out through the audience and even into the lobby, thanks to lots of laminated "schoolwork" and motivational posters. The five-piece band serves the score well, with conductor Janet Roma getting in a couple of choice moments of stage business as well.
Spelling Bee may not be a classic for the ages, but it's a guaranteed evening of laughs. And you'll definitely want to catch this talented young cast so that when the 50th Annual Bee rolls around, you'll be able to say you saw them when ...
For a different sort of "I saw them when ..." opportunity, head down to the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, where the Animus Ensemble' fourth season has begun with a new production of Little Shop of Horrors. The company seems to specialize in musicals about people living on the fringes of society, having presented memorable productions of Once Upon A Mattress (with a male Winifred) and Promises, Promises in previous seasons.
Like those shows, Little Shop deals with outsiders looking for a way into society, in this case the poor schlemiel Seymour Krelborn (Christian Daniel Kiley), orphan flower-shop attendant who sees his big break come in the person of a strange and unusual plant dubbed Audrey II (Neil Graham). What sets this production apart from every other Little Shop you've ever seen is that rather than haul old the rented Audrey II puppet, director John Ambrosino has cast a large, bald, tattooed rock and roll singer to not only voice but also embody the plant on stage. (As the plant grows, Graham is joined by dancers Erin Pellechia, Christin Fagone, and Maria Larossa.)
The good news is, the approach works, and not only because Graham is a tremendously charismatic personality on stage. Removing the puppet forces audience members who have seen the show before and think they know it inside and out to reconsider what's happening on stage and take Audrey II a bit more seriously as a character. The tone shifts from that of a campy tribute to shlock horror to something more akin to a morality play. The result is sometimes goofy, but more often provocative and even a little bit threatening, without sacrificing any of the warmth or humor of the script.
The production is also blessed with a perfect pair of leads. Kiley is a strong singer and endearing presence, winning over the hearts of the audience so we're on his side even as he begins to kill his acquaintances to feed his plant. Erin Tchoukaleff brings to the role of Audrey a sense of knowing worldliness underneath the bimbo exterior that adds weight to her decisions. It doesn't hurt that she sings beautifully, either.
The show is played on a unit set, designed by Peter Watson, dotted with evocative '50s era propaganda and film posters. Choreographer Josie Bray utilizes the "plant dancers" and the ubiquitous urchin girls (Heather Fry, Emilie Battle, and Sehri Wickliffe) in establishing the atmosphere for various scenes, giving each group their own distinct dance vocabulary. And the four-piece band, led by Bob Mollicone, ably balances the rock and roll leanings of the score with the theatrical necessities of the piece, letting loose at just the right moments.
While the show aims high, it doesn't quite reach the stature of previous Animus productions. Eric Ruben is miscast at Mr. Mushnik, delivering a rather flat portrayal of the flower shop owner. And at times, the performances of supporting players Jim Jordan (hilarious as Dr. Orin Scravello, the S&M dentist) and Perri Lauren in a variety of small roles slip dangerously close to silly collegiate theatre.
Leading the charge is the hilarious Maureen Keiller as Sylvia Fowler - imagine Christine Baranski playing Dorothy Parker in a foul mood, and I mean that in the best possible way. Nancy E. Carroll is the perfect counterweight as Nancy Blake, the acerbic narrator of the show whose deadpan delivery is an ideal balance to the larger than life Keiller. Gottlieb treads the middle ground, succeeding in the difficult job of creating a sympathetic, interesting, and real heroine amidst the verbal barrage of her friends. Gottlieb manages the most surprising trick in the show - making the audience care as much about the story as they do about the oratory acrobatics.
So much of the cast is so perfect, it's impossible to find descriptions of their performances, but trust me when I say that from the youngest (Sophie Rich as Little Mary) to the oldest (Mary Klug's Countess de Lage, or perhaps Alice Duffy's Mrs. Morehead) the cast sparkles. Georgia Lyman, as the "other woman" in Mary's husband's life, is a pro at the screwball-style machine-gun patter but occasionally missteps in her more dramatic scenes. But most of the missteps are minor in the scheme of this production.
The only serious flaw comes at the end of the first act, when for reasons entirely unclear to me Edmiston makes his directorial hand all too visible by inserting a musical number. The song isn't entirely inappropriate - Cole Porter's "Down in the Depths (on the 90th Floor)" certainly captures Mary's mood at the end of the act, and one could envision it as background music during a filmic fade out on that scene. However, Edmiston brings out his entire cast of nearly two dozen women to belt out a jazzy rendition that dissolved much of the audience at the performance I attended into giggles.
Luckily, that moment is followed by intermission, enabling us all to regain our composure and erase the memory of the moment by the start of act two, which quickly returns to the high quality of the rest of the show.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is now playing in an open-ended run at the Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont Street, in Boston's Theatre District. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Friday at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 1:00 pm and 5:30 pm. Tickets are $25 - $75 at Ticketmaster (617-931-2787 or ticketmaster.com).
The Animus Ensemble presents Little Shop of Horrors, now through October 21st at the BCA Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont Street in Boston's South End. Tickets and times at BostonTheatreScene.com, 617-933-8600, or at the Calderwood Pavilion Box Office, 527 Tremont Street.
SpeakEasy Stage Company presents The Women, now through October 21 at the BCA Roberts Studio Theatre, 527 Tremont Street in Boston's South End. Tickets and times at BostonTheatreScene.com, 617-933-8600, or at the Calderwood Pavilion Box Office, 527 Tremont Street.