If you’re a 20th Century person (as I am) you might find the 21st Century musical production “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, by William Finn (he did the music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (she did the libretto) somewhat over energized.
The performers, although universally outstanding in their roles, send messages that one might expect to receive from a group of kids with Tourettes Syndrome with a dash of attention disorder disease (ADD) thrown in for good measure. Yes, I know all of the characters in the musical are supposed be off-the-wall and quirky, but with no subtly there is a limit to believability and acceptance of the premise.
The production directed by Bob Reinhagen is produced by California Ballet Opera Company, for presentation at IPAC, the East Valley’s premiere performing venue. The musical, choreographed by Rob Reinhagen, features an excellent ensemble cast of singer/actors, that includes: Erik Bradley, Marissa Escobar, Dan Graff, Cynthia Leigh-Karp, Anthony Martinez, Gerardo Mota, Cydney Rothblatt, Kristin Towers-Rowles, and Shafik Wahhab.
However, when adults play children on stage their believability meters run out of coins in a hurry. The more childlike and petulant the behavior that is called for, the wider the gap of acceptance becomes on the part of the audience. It’s almost a no win situation for the actors. They work their tails off, but the payoff for all that onstage talent and energy is somehow dissipated. And that’s a shame.
There are truly some very talented people up there on that stage. Erik Bradley is a mesmerizing whirling dervish of comic timing and controlled onstage movement as William Morris Barfee, the singing spelling phenom. Kristin Towers-Rowles as Olive Ostrovsky, Bradley’s closest rival for the championship crown, is an Equity performer who knows her way around a stage. Her Olive is well thought out and solidly performed and sung. Dan Graff as Vice Principal Panch, is properly quirky, and full of tics, and odd behavior, just like his students, but I wouldn’t want him to be my principal. Gerardo Mota as Mitchell Mahoney and Dan Dad (he plays two parts) has a nice voice and brings a nice quality to his two different roles. Marissa Escobar as a speech challenged student is cleverly and appealingly performed.
The gimmick in the show, as far as the “spelling bee” is concerned, is the use of audience members becoming part of the production, in so far as they must spell words on stage just like the real cast members. Opening night produced four members from the audience that acquitted themselves quite nicely in the spelling department, and quickly got into the spirit of the acting thing, as well. (There’s no business, like show business, eh?)
The scenic, and lighting design and operation by Doug Ridgeway, although a little shaky on opening night, and the sound tracks by John Salerno and Nathan Luoto, provide director Reinhagen with a cadre of technical credits and a team which will provide solid support on future IPAC productions.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” performs Fridays, Saturdays at 7 pm, and Saturday and Sundays at 2:30 pm through March 11, 2012. For reservations and ticket information call the box office at 760-775-5200.