By MARY LOU ARMSTRONG-PETERS Special to The Star Democrat's Weekend!
EASTON — If you noticed the marquee at the Avalon Theatre recently, you saw “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” featured prominently. Do not think for a minute that this weekend there will be kids from the mythical Putnam County on the Avalon stage spelling out words until the last man is standing. Actually, that is what you will see, but in words, music and dance as the Avalon Foundation’s Underground Actors present the original Broadway musical by that name.
Yes, there will be a last person standing, but so much humor and action happens before that conclusion that you won’t want to miss this appealing production.
The play is a long one-act musical comedy that opened on Broadway in 2005 and was nominated for six Tony Awards. It won two, including Best Book and Best Featured Actor, and ran on Broadway for 1,136 performances. Its original cast album subsequently was nominated for a Grammy award.
The production here in Easton, simply but effectively staged by director Lisa Clarke, with help from musical director Kevin Thomas and choreographer Iz Clemens, employs a trick, called for in the original script, of taking people from the audience — at random — to come on stage to be part of “The Bee.” This improvisational community interaction makes for some humorous stage moments. Be aware: If you are in the audience, you may be selected.
You will be guaranteed to have fun on that stage!
Starring a cast of six “student” competitors, three “adult” officials and two overbearing “parents,” all of whom are local high school students, the show is a loving spoof on the great American spelling bee. Using a freeze motion technique, it gives the audience some insights into the contestants’ lives and inner feelings. We are not just seeing a competition, we are learning about young love (Olive and Barfee’s “Pas de Deux”), separation (“The I Love You Song”) unexpected physical reaction (“Chip’s Lament”) and feelings of inadequacy (“I’m Not Smart”). Each contestant has an issue to be resolved. As we watch and laugh, they express these emotions in song and dance until the last “Goodbye.”
Overseeing the “Pandemonium” — one of the cleverest dance numbers — are Rona (Catherine Jacobs), who, as the moderator, relives her own youthful winning moment in the bee 25 years ago, and vice-principal Douglas Parch (Joe Tyler), the judge with issues of his own, but, as we learn at the end, a kind heart.
The student spellers are: Chip Tolentino (Jeremy Wolfberg), Logainne Schwartzandgrubeniere (Emma Langfitt), Leaf Coneybear (Patrick Powell), William Barfee (Jonah Sanders), Marcy Park (Emma Wittman) and Olive Ostrovsky (Rachel Cox). The cast is rounded out by Mitch Mahoney (Markel Williams), the grief counselor fulfilling his public service, and Carl Dad and Dan Dad (Nathan Mullen and Lukas McGee), the two interfering “Dads.” Mitch’s number, “Prayer of the Grief Counselor,” speaks to the fleeting of youthful pain and his wish to have kids understand real pain is quite different. Jacobs and Williams do double duty as the “dream” parents of Olive in “I Love You.”
There is real talent on stage and off in this production. Lighting by Nic Carter and sound by Les Lentz add to the staging and effects. Clarke, a graduate of the theater program at Washington College, has appeared in and directed shows at Church Hill Theatre, but this is her directorial debut on the Avalon stage. She has molded these young actors into an effective company whose budding talents are evident. For a welcome break to the summer’s routine of sun and surf, head over to the Avalon. You just might become a star, too!