Spelling Bee at the Shakespeare Festival

By on 13 August, 2012 in Art, Fun, Kate and Stephen with 2 Comments

Photo courtesy of ASF

The first strange thing we noticed was the numbered placard hanging around William Shakespeare’s neck. He’d been designated number 23 and as we entered, a woman standing underneath his statue was signing up audience members to participate in the titular bee. Although we both have competitive bee experience, we were wary, and took our seats.

The title of the play holds no secrets – it promises the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and it delivers, complete with audience participation. Set in an eerily accurate high school gym, the musical’s cast includes three people officiating the bee, six very talented actors … and four brave audience members.

We weren’t totally sure what to expect from the production. Having been to a number of ASF productions, we knew to expect impeccable set design, lighting and sound. We were not disappointed. We did not expect to be so impressed by the edginess and depth of the production or by the sheer talent on display. We left shaking our heads at it. How can something that seems as simple and seemingly shallow as a high school spelling bee be the fodder for cutting edge musical comedy that kept us, no fans of musicals, enthralled for two solid hours?

Part of it has to do with the brilliance of the script. Putnam County evidently got its start as an improvisational set, growing into a serious hit. Those roots still show, with a number of offhanded (and variable) remarks tossed in to liven up the local crowd. The songs go beyond establishing and elaborating on character, showcasing the cast’s incredibly impressive vocal skills while toying with the audience’s comfort zone a little. We could be wrong, but we’d wager that never has such a lovely song about a particular part of the male anatomy crossed the ASF stage.

There’s nuance in the writing. The major characters are a set of high school students. It’s easy to write teenagers as stereotypes: the nerd, the jock, the rest of the cast of The Breakfast Club (nothing against the great writers who brought us that movie). But Putnam County reaches farther into the unique minds of young adolescents. Every character develops as the play proceeds to the championship spell-off, and there’s not an unsympathetic one among them.

We already mentioned the soundtrack, which has some genuinely well-crafted songs, but a review of this performance would not be complete without some additional praise for the quality of the voices assembled for this production. Kyle Scatliffe conveyed menace, while also channeling the Godfather of Soul for one number, producing a ripple of delight through the audience at the end of one of his songs. Eleni Delopoulos manages to convey the genuine sense of delight from an educator seeing young people shine, while also tapping into the vast reserve of feeling that emits from nostalgic champions reliving past glories. Liz Froio manages to bring some Mary Lou Retton to her role, while singing with speech impediment. Georgia Tapp also knocks it out of the park as Olive Ostrovsky, an earnest young dictionary afficianado.

The orchestration was outstanding and there was not a single actor that could be said to comprise a weak point in the overall effort. Although one of the songs is correct that “life is pandemonium,” this show carefully channels that swirl of chaos into an effective spectacle that shouldn’t be missed by anyone able to drive to Montgomery before the show closes on September 2.

As school starts, sometimes those of us a good bit distant from it can forget the very personal triumphs and tragedies that adolescence brings. Putnam County captures those while bringing the audience into a fun and sometimes challenging production. If you think the excellent 2002 documentary Spellbound was the definitive piece on spelling bees, you’re wrong. This production manages to get at a lot of the deeper themes that make intellect and competition such rich veins for storytelling.

Putnam County marks the end of quite a good season at ASF. We saw three productions this year and greatly enjoyed each of them. We still wish they’d run more Shakespeare, but applaud their work at bringing new and innovative programming to the community. Next year’s schedule, which kicks off with some Mark Twain in October, can be seen here.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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  1. Jeffrey Todhunter says:

    Please note; the music for a stage musical is called a SCORE. A soundtrack is generally considered to be the music from a film.

    Thanks for the nice review.


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