When Did a SPELLING BEE Become A-R-T?

by He Said/She Said

(He Said….)

by [author 10]

Sometimes I think I should have my head examined for attending musical theater in the first place. Song, then dialogue. Song. Dialogue. Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, or vice versa. Situation strains relationship. Sad break-up. Boy gets girl again. What was I thinking?

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, is a musical that must be on a higher scale. At least, a different scale. I could write one of the shortest reviews ever written, but, believe me; it’s already been done–with just one word. Without further explanation, that “one” word would be meaningless. Presuming you don’t skip ahead, I promise to save that one-word review for the end just to keep you in suspense. The Burlington County Footlighters “proudly presented” THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE tonight, and when it was over I was ready to go upstairs and tell the actors what I thought of their performances and the production! It took a lot to resist the urge.

The cast of Burlington County Footlighers' THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, running in Cinnaminson, NJ through September 25th.

It was a spelling bee unlike any I have ever seen (and I have a child who won one); nor was it like any musical I have seen recently. I knew from a little pre-show research on the Internet to expect good comedy writing. The show was originally a sketch called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E by The Farm, Rebecca Feldman’s writers and performers collective. Conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with the book by Rachel Sheinkin and the music by William Finn, the show is a delight. Was I entertained by this production? Most definitely, and the audience seemed to agree with me with applause after every song and the constant laughter in the air. Should there be more? I think it’s a matter of scale and your definition of art.

American Theater Magazine asked its readers if “musicals are America’s strongest rebuke to theatrical naturalism.” The statement seemed to be trying to deny musical theater is theater. Of course, I recognize the magazine was provoking its readers. It is good to be provoked; it makes us think, re-think and sometimes act. The intention of drama, of the theater in general, of art as a whole is to provoke us. It attacks our hearts and our brains. If we accept that good theater should move us or affect us in some profound way, should we compare musicals to a variation of the same art?

Before we jump to conclusions, THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is not a fluff musical, nor is it “bad” by any stretch. Any brilliant production, including the “fluff” can be as artful in its own way as long as we measure the right scale. A musical that makes a point can fail or succeed as well, but if its writers give us ideas and affect our hearts with songs all the better for us. Give me a musical that has a story, interesting characters, songs that say something significant and play a role in moving the story or affecting the characters and I’m hooked. The first musical that ever did that for me was A CHORUS LINE And there are some similarities here. Add in terrific satire, elements of ethos and pathos both in song and dialogue, a well-written book (the Broadway play was nominated for six Tony’s and won two-one for best book), and an ensemble cast that never steps out of character and seamlessly schmoozes with audience volunteers who are asked on stage to experience the Bee first hand, and you have this show.

The show is not a long one, but just the right length, and you’ll discover you don’t want to say good bye to these characters brought to life on stage. Is it the best score ever written? Perhaps not, but it works wonderfully with the well-crafted words. The actors’ ad libs were so good and in character every time it was hard to tell who wrote what. The choreography took up the whole stage and used it beautifully with purpose.

I entered the Putnam County gym and came to that event when I entered the auditorium. The set and decorations made me feel at home. It was refreshing to note that the theater had written in its program: “This production is most enjoyed by audience members 15 years of age and older.” The audience was a mix of young and old-mostly younger, but old enough. Lights up. Announcements. A request was made that the audience stand and sing the Star – Spangled Banner in honor of 9/11. I make no complaint here. The request seemed appropriate for the day and was accomplished smoothly and professionally. Since we were in the “gym,” the Pledge of Allegiance wouldn’t have seemed out of place either. The small orchestra, tucked neatly out of the way, performed excellently as well.

From the moment Jillian Starr-Renbjor, (Rona Lisa Peretti), and Matt Becker (Chip Tolentino/Jesus) opened their mouths I knew I was in for a treat. I cannot single out a single actor as dominating the show; they were all excellent and that is not a cop-out. I was close enough to see total immersion of character and the characters all in synch. The neat part was that I got to know each of the characters pretty well and care about them.

The characters developed and honed by the original collaboration (with additional collaboration here, I’m sure), are performed here with hilarious results. I immediately accepted the children played by adults. I anxiously anticipated the next song and dance number. I’ve never done that before. Why now? Because each song brought me a deeper understanding of the characters in front of me, making me laugh, yet feeling sad for their woes and fears, and made me happy for their victories overcoming the obstacles of life.

So, we come to the end and the word I promised you. THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE attacks our brains and hearts and in its perfection gives us art. The Word is “Art,” Baby! Good art. Enjoy it while it lasts.

(He Said….)

by [author 11]

Take six nerdy adolescents vying for 1st place in an annual spelling bee and the right to move on to the next level, their personal lives and myriad eccentricities on display for the delight of the audience and you’ve summed up the terrific production of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE that Burlington County Footlighters unveiled last Friday.

The theatre is decorated from back to front just like a high school gymnasium, with appropriate banners, posters and even a scoreboard. The contestants sit on bleachers that are spun during an ensemble song and dance number. Jim Frazer did an outstanding job of set design and decoration.

In Act I each contestant introduces him/herself in song:

Chip Tolentino: (Matt Becker) in his Boy Scout uniform.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenn: (Felicia Capece) a lesbian in shirt, tie, jacket and pants who has 2 dads

Leaf Coneybear: (Sean Flanerty) home schooled, makes his own clothes, has facial and body tics, and embodies the word eccentric.

William Barfee: (Brad Kenney) He corrects the Vice-Principal in the pronunciation of his name to BarFAY every time he is called upon. He spells his words by writing them on the floor with his foot. Classic nerd with taped glasses, William has a slight speech impediment.

Marcy Park: (Emily Huddell) appears in her very proper parochial school uniform. Though the rules state you may ask for the definition and the root of a word, Marcy gives both as soon as she is given her word and spells it correctly with a wide-eyed stare and an expressionless face.

Olive Ostrovsky: (Becky Mosely) all alone at the bee and looking forlorn. Mother is in India finding her spiritual self and father has promised to attend but appears to be late.

Every one of the six has a quality singing voice. I was particularly impressed with Brad Kenney who kept up his speech impediment throughout his solo. It seemed possible he really had a speech problem. (He doesn’t!)

The adults are:

Rona Lisa Perretti, (Jillian Starr Renbjor) Moderator, a school employee and the very proud winner of the 3rd Annual P C Spelling Bee.

Vice Principal Douglas Panch: (William Kamps) he clearly does not want to be there.

Mitch Maloney: (Carlos Barrera) grief counselor. He escorts the losers off stage with a hug and a juice box, although he is a parolee working off his 100 hours of community service and looks like it!

Act I was a blast to watch, got great audience reaction and was over before I realized an hour had gone-by.

Act II gave each cast member his or her moment to shine. Brad Kenney (Leaf) has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. Every performer was professional. When the V-Principal had a screaming meltdown, he was wonderful, a marvelous switch-up of character. Sarah Dugan created crisp dance numbers that really clicked.

Carlos Berrera and Jillian Starr-Renbjor had a love song as Olive’s parents, that was sung beautifully and with their powerful voices they nearly blew the glasses off my face from the third row.

Act II was more thoughtful and provocative than Act I. It had dark, sad moments that I didn’t expect. Usually a play uses Act I to explain the characters. Rachel Sheinkin did just the opposite.

Footlighters is loaded with exceptional talent and possesses many triple threat performers. Some may even be quadruples.

Congratulations to director Ann DeVaro and musical director Peg Smith for putting all that talent together and giving the audience a very professional show.

If you want an inexpensive, entertaining evening out, this is the place for you.

Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Directed by Ann DeVaro
Musical Direction by Peg Smith
September 10 – 25, 2010

Burlington County Footlighters
808 Pomona Road
Cinnaminson, NJ

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