Sunday, January 3, 2010

Spelling Bee

I’ve been lax on these posts, but several of you have been kind enough to prod me with very kind words to return to them. For a guy who loves language, last night’s play was a great excuse…so, first, I'll go back to Souvenir, from the Hanover Tavern, then switch to B'Dales' other venue, Willow Lawn, and write about 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

January 2, 2010
(Much was made on Facebook of the date being a palindrome.)

Went to the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn, and there saw the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Singing its praises will hardly be an ineffable task…

It was a delightful, funny, a bit bawdy and sweet. Wait, sorry---it was delectable, effervescent without being capricious, and sweet without being saccharine. I would use sacchariferous, but that’s really reserved for chemicals containing or yielding sugar. Regardless, what this “Bee” contains (and yields) is nicely and not overly sweet.

We first meet Rona Lisa Perretti, the inimitable Debra Wagoner, and Vice Principal Branch, adorably played by Ford Flannagan, who explain “The Rules of the Bee.” Ask for a definition. Ask to have the word used in a sentence. Ask for language of origin. Audience plants are listening carefully and nervously.

“Bee” is a musical take on all our childhood experiences with spelling bees in specific and competitions in general. More, it’s an inventive look at identity, particularly the contributions thereto made by the defining experiences of childhood. Transpiring in front of an audience, some are certainly traumatic, these experiences shape us. No surprise, of course, but fun. Metaphors for a life in the theatre abound, so what at first might seem strange grist for the stage soon becomes clear.

Musically it’s rich, fun and outstandingly sung by the cast. But its ability to connect with us, while it uses the music to do so, goes beyond the score.

Partly it’s our own memories: at the start, almost immediately, the singular spelling bee moment of my life came to mind. In the 5th or 6th? Grade, my recollection is that the entire school was required to participate. Union Chapel Elementary, Parkville, MO. I didn’t make it past my very first word. The huge challenge given me? “Kindergarten.” Now, every rational adult (and child) knows that here, I’ve just spelled it correctly. But even today, even now typing it, I’m grateful for spell check; “Kindergarten” always creates a little reverberation in my head: ---shouldn’t it be spelled just like “garden?” An assortment? A safe haven for small children? An innocent array of nutritious morsels of learning? A GARDEN for, in fact, KINDERS? All these went through my 10 year-old brain, and they still do. In front of the whole school, I reached that moment of singularity, an event horizon in time and space: was it D-E-N or T-E-N?? I thought and thought---all the thoughts listed above---wanted to say D-E-N because even-if-that’s-not-how-it’s-spelled-it-should-be! But no! Both “kinder” and “garten” come from the German, of course, dating back to the Indo-European roots for “stoopid” and “GARDEN.” I said neither.

“Awww, P-D-Q.”

And sat down. Moron.

Always try! It might have been right! In education we stigmatize mistakes---but for the arts, students are wary of making them. Especially the ‘tweens, in front of their peers. Younger children will risk it---they’ll play, they’ll try. But older? Fill in the wrong bubble, and colleges, careers, lives are shattered. Creativity requires accepting the risk of being wrong. But I digress.

This awkward and solipsistic phase of life, for most thankfully brief, nonetheless has tremendous influence on the folks around us. And through the lens of Bee, quite enjoyably so. We’re meant to learn of course that all the phases of life exert tremendous influence on those around us. Hardly new material, but the show communicates it in a novel and not blatantly didactic manner.

It’s achieved mostly through the wit of its silly comic writing—last night’s audience laughed wholeheartedly throughout—and strong character choices. Many are especially moving, both in development, (several characters really significantly learn winning isn’t everything), and in physical and vocal distinctions (three of four main finalists have speech impediments). Their growth is palpable, especially the decisive moments stuck in a spotlight of Audra Honaker, Aly Weplo, Eric Stallings and Yvonne Same. Honaker’s leap into the caretaker’s arms—the actor also plays her father, well, one of them—was beautiful and heartbreaking, and Weplo’s main number, sung partly with Debra Wagoner and William Cortez-Statham, tear-inducing. “The I Love You Song,” saved for last, was clearly the standout of the production. All great stuff. But then, I’m a softie.

There’s quite a bit in the ‘losing victories’ of both Honaker and Same, suffering through onerous parental expectations, and overcoming a kind of cultural determinism---true too for the ‘caretaker’ role of Cortez-Statham, but for the most part, Bee is about self-determinism and life itself.

A couple of brief items: I wanted to see Matt Shofner’s “Leaf Coneybear” get more chance to dance---but Leaf fit superbly into what made each of the “children” adorable.

And I was all set to be perturbed with Matt Polson for not mentioning Richmond Shakespeare in his bio (he was Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice ’04, Lucentio in Taming of the Shrew,’06 and Ferdinand in The Tempest in ’07) but he was so committedly playful and silly (and had a kind of bumpy week), so I gladly gave the guy a break.

Richmond loves and should celebrate even more the talent of Debra Wagoner. I’ve loved her voice and actors’ intuition for that suspended moment—when we catch an emotion with an actor and share it. Debra knows these moments so well, and can use them like a laser. She sings a refrain that even describes it---“Her Favorite Moment of the Bee,” was an instant in which we process emotion on stage. We recall the emotion, and we’re brought to the moment with the actor. Sympathy. Syzygy! (Yes, it’s a word. If you’ve seen the show you know why I mention it here) Debra was also in high gear in this same fashion last month in Souvenir at the Hanover Tavern. --With the fantastic Jonathan Spivey---who juggled (jongleur!) the difficult task of accompanying and performing. Lovely performances, both. I've written a bit more on Souvenir here .

But it’s Weplo’s “Olive Ostrovsky” that the show centers on—educators (like Douglas Branch and Rona Lisa Perretti) are perennially thrilled by a stand-out gifted student discovering a talent, and the show’s repeated focus on what makes ‘a winner’ shine particularly bright in her happiness for a newfound friend, a newfound talent, and an enjoyment of recognizing that talent in her friends. Far more winning, indeed. Weplo is the perfect choice for her. What a treat.

Also lovely to see the spot-on direction of Steve Perigard. The assembled team, inexorably swift timing, particular guidance to actors in character development, and terrific use of the Marjorie Arenstein Theatre stage. I wanted to see more of the band, wonderfully led by Musical Director Sandy Dacus (clearly phenomenal work with her singers, as well), especially post curtain call--the scrim panel hiding them was so good that the audience tended to forget they were there. But that’s just being nit-picky.

A final word on some of the participatory/improvisatory elements of the show. Spoilers follow, so read these after you’ve seen the production….It’s a great device, to place adult actors playing children beside audience members. So, too to have audience members spell ludicrous words, easy and difficult, and poke fun at them even as the characters are also embarrassed. (Is there, after all, a more embarrassing thing than to misspell a word in front of hundreds of people? Well, perhaps only a physical embarrassment for males could be worse, and that’s in the show, too)

But I learned that Ford Flannagan, selects words for the audience members, writes the sentences that may be requested for each word, and improves the scenes with the ‘ringers.’ The unpredictability could have led to awkward disruptions in the flow of the show, but they were beautifully chosen, deftly handled, and tons of fun for the audience. Debra and the whole cast gets into the act.

Congratulations to the whole cast and crew---it’s flawlessly called by Rick Brandt, btw, and attractively designed by Ron Keller, Lynn Hartmann, Derek Dumais and Liz Hopper (no small task, costuming adult actors as children—here it’s a nice balance). I had a great time, and encourage you to catch the show before it closes on January 17.

Then go see RS’ first Second Tuesdays Staged Reading of 2010 on the 12th, Ben Jonson’s delicious Volpone, directed by Jeff Cole. $15 and you get a glass of wine. Jeff was of course our most recent Hamlet, and I’m eagerly awaiting Jeff’s performance as Iago in our mainstage production of Othello, beginning in February, also at CenterStage

Cheers, Happy New Year, and see you at the theatre.