Arts & Events
Plays make the rounds as the licensing gets released to different levels of theatres. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is now in rotation, and it is the Masquers Playhouse of Pt. Richmond’s turn.
John Maio presents a sweet version of the musical, with ample voices led by the professional tones of Shay Oglesby-Smith as the champ of 20 years ago who comes back to moderate the competition for a break from her lonely realtor life. The excellent pit orchestra led by Musical Director Pat King is perfectly modulated to accompany the singing.
However, Mr. Maio chooses to deemphasize the conflict in this production, and the casting and characterizations are often uneven. A quick glance at musical plots from Judd’s rivalry with Curly to the Barber’s “sharp friend” tells you that without conflict, dramatic tension goes bye-bye. The anti-hero Barfee (pronounced bar-FAY!) played by David Irving, who has a bell-clear belt, is portrayed as just a sweet kid with a lisp instead of a nerdy bully, even though his lines stipulates that, “Everyone is afraid of me and no one likes me.” It is largely on Barfee’s arc of reaching out to another from behind his brusque and supercilious façade that our hearts turn, so if he ain’t a pain in the whatever, it don’t work. And he looks confusingly like Chip the Boy Scout, played by Tony Gardner whose song about his embarrassingly constant erection is belted convincingly and with gusto; regrettably, there is no foreshadowing of his problem so it comes as a shock if you’re new to this musical.
Noelle Arms as the overprotected daughter of two gay dads also has a lisp which she executes perfectly and comically, but two lisps in the same cast are one too many. Ms. Arms is by far the superior actor, and is actually button-cute so she fits in with the tone while delivering real emotion. Her momentary turn as a mother who sweetly but cuttingly demeans her son hints at her range. Alas, her voice, though sweet, is too small to compete with the others, and the difference is palpable.
Olive, played by Julia Etzel, has a lovely voice with a good belt in it which will grow with training, and she sings with emotion in the trio with her emotionally absent parents. Kevin Hammond plays Leaf the flaky stand-in competitor, and is comic with a nice belt, but strives for cute rather than real, which is the problem all around. Greg Klein as the Biker doing Community Service as a Bouncer/Counselor is physically convincing, but lacks the threatening demeanor of those who wear a biker gang’s “cut.” One solo lets him wail and display his considerable vocal chops which I’m guessing is always followed by the same ovation. His turn as the nurturing gay dad is a winner. Michael Sally as Mr. Panch, underplays the role of the snarky vice-principal who announces the words to spell; his battle with Barfee is written as a major conflict in the play, but is glossed over.
A stand-out is Leslie Ji as Marcy, the overachiever who Knows Six Languages. Typecast, since she is Asian and that culture demands academic excellence, she lives up to the casting, and brings animation and sullenness to the character. However, there is not enough build-up of her dismay with having to be best, and it is dealt with too quickly to be moving.
John Hull turns the stage into a gym with a few Boys & Girls Locker Room signs, a couple of doors with emergency push bars painted on, and that ever-looming rope we had to climb in gym class. The back wall opens for a couple of transcendent and innovative cameo tableaux with great stagecraft that spices up the high school gym’s necessary dullness.
Still, aside from this critic’s carping and enjoinment to set the bar higher, it’s a charming way to spend a Sunday afternoon or weekend evening. Speaking of bars, the Mac and the Baltic are a few steps away for a pre/post quaff and chat, which makes for a convivial and happy outing.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Lane, Point Richmond
Plays weekends through December 18th
Reservations online at www.masquers.org or (510) 232-4031
Music and Lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin. Conceived by Rebecca Feldman, additional material by Jay Reiss.
Direction by John Maio, musical direction by Pat King, set by John Hull, lighting by David Lam, costumes by Marjorie Moore, choreography by Katie Kimball, props by Nancy Benson, and stage management by Joe Torres.
WITH: Kevin Achas, Noelle Arms, Julia Etzel, Kevin Hammond, David Irving, Leslie Ji, Gregg Klein, Michael Sally and Shay Oglesby-Smith.
Orchestra: Wendy Asakawa, Pat King, Barbara Kohler, Jo Lusk, Dean Starnes, Patrice Young.
John A. McMullen II reviews as “Eye from the Aisle” with editing by EJ Dunne.
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