I always admit I am a fairly biased critic. I like what I like and while I’m open to giving new things a chance, I remain partial to what I know I enjoy. I enjoy the book and music of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee;” I already knew this after seeing it done earlier in the year at the Dayton Playhouse. In fact, I would say that of all the Broadway shows I’ve seen, this is my favorite comedy and perhaps my second favorite show of all time.
But then a dilemma emerges; will I enjoy the show as much when a new company produces it? After all, I not only fell in love with the show in Dayton but I also was blown away by the performances – especially considering it was community theater.
Tonight I saw “Spelling Bee” at the Showboat Majestic, which is of course operated by the professional theater company, Cincinnati Landmark Productions. Could they possibly live up to my expectations?
In keeping with the theme of the show, let me spell it out the answer for you: A-B-S-O-L-U-T-E-L-Y!
The set was perfect; the small stage of the theater was not a hinderance here as I suspect it might have been for a show like “42nd Street.” The restricted space gave that intimate vibe that this show thrives in and I was impressed with the realistic yet subtle decor of the “gymnasium” that was created for us to exist in for the Bee. The orchestration was superb and the sound design was some of the best I’ve heard in theater, including some supposedly top-of-the-line productions at the Aronoff Center. The lighting appeared simple, but upon closer examination was exactly right especially during the rousing “Pandemonium” number.
While all of the technical aspects of the show aided in its success, it was the strength of the performances that really put it over the top. Katy Lindhart (“Rona Lisa Peretti”) projected the confidence this character needs and had the singing chops to carry the show’s most difficult vocal number (“The I Love You Song”). Braden Mechley (“Vice-Principal Doug Panch”) brought a natural disdain for nonsense along with sharp comic timing that made this character work well. R. DeAndre Smith (“Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney”) walked out on stage and won the audience over immediately with his appearance and intimidating glares. Who would have expected that tenor voice to reside in that vessel?
The “children” in this show were all top notch. Jonathan Zeng (“Chip Tolentino”) impressed during his solo number (“My Unfortunate Erection”) with not only his voice but also his ability to convey the comedy and emotion behind being a pubescent boy.
Stephanie Park (“Marcy Park”) has a way of conveying forced sincerity and faking a smile that actually looks like someone faking a smile that demonstrates an acting ability I hadn’t really gotten to see as I watched her all summer sing and dance at Kings Island. She has a very bright future and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead for her. Plus she twirled a baton, used karate, played a ukelele, juggled AND Riverdanced all in the same song! Park may be the most challenging character to play because she has little to say throughout the show and this actress needed to capitalize on every opportunity to not be swallowed up by the bigger personalities. She accomplished it and then some.
In the interest of journalistic integrity (as little as I care about that, really, on this site) I should remind you that I am the webmaster and friend of Charity Farrell (“Logainne Schwartsandgrubinerre”). Regardless of my relationship with her, her incredible talent can not be argued. She plays the part of the overachieving, politically-minded youngest child in the bee with such conviction and subtle touches (like eating a candy bracelet throughout the show) and lisping as well as I’ve heard anyone do it. Meanwhile, she can belt like few others in the local theater community. She’s incredible and I was beaming as I watched her go to work on that stage.
Collin Kessler (“Leaf Coneybear”) may have been my favorite part of the show, which is saying something. I’ve listened to the original cast recording, watched YouTube videos of various productions of this show, and no one can touch the interpretation of this character by Kessler. His choices in timing, inflection, facial expression; they are unparalleled. I suspect we’ll see major things from this guy in the national scene once he completes his education.
Matt Hill (“William Barfee”) has the daunting task of taking the most unlikeable character and turning our opinion around. Hill does it effortlessly while maintaining the integrity of the character’s, um, how to say it . . .disabilities? The energy he brings to his big solo number (“Magic Foot”) wore me out watching – in a good way!
Finally, Danielle Meo (“Olive Ostrovsky”) has the unenviable task of taking a depressed, sad-storied little girl and not succumbing to the outrageousness of the rest of the comedy. She has to make us feel for her, but in doing so not make us empathize with her so much that the show feels disjointed by her tragically humorless story. Meo, who’s dour appearance was perfect, did great. She also had an amazing voice and great presence throughout the show.
As you can tell, I highly recommend you get to see this show. I already have tickets for next weekend but if I can get their web site to load, I may check into going back again this weekend! Its a brilliant way to escape from the duldrums of Autumn and a really special cast. I had a great time and so did everyone sitting around me. (Well, except for one sourpussed old hag who didn’t smile once throughout the entire show . . . to her, I say go jump in the river). Go see this show and support local theater, especially when its this well done!
FYI: I did go back two days later and it was just as good. So many subtle touches and they even changed the words and jokes for the audience spellers. Great job to all! Read more reviews at http://www.sappycritic.com . . .