Out of the fire, the Phoenix rises. A bit dramatic, but we are all in “theatre”, correct? A group of very talented actors, directed by the savvy Stephen Casey, sang, danced, acted and spelled their way into our hearts with an upbeat, funny, off-beat version of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, produced at the New Hope Arts Center by Wendy Force McBride of Acting Naturally. McBride conducts workshops with her group, Actually Naturally, mainly for children “to explore (acting) in a friendly, encouraging and noncompetitive atmosphere”. She teamed up with Casey, known locally as the former Artistic Director and Choreographer of the now defunct Bucks County Playhouse, to provide a great night of musical theatre, filling the void left when the Playhouse, under Ralph Miller, went bankrupt and was forced to close. Both McBride and Casey strongly emphasized that this was NOT a Playhouse production in a different venue, but a new beginning for creative people to serve the artistic needs of the Central Bucks community. McBride was able to secure the use of the Center and had Casey use veterans of his past Playhouse productions to make the BEE come alive. The bad news of the Playhouse closing may mark the good news of this new duo of McBride and Casey forming an alliance. The physical, historical facility, the financial disaster, the old, in need of major repair theatre may be dead, but the talented people that graced the Playhouse stage just found a new way to entertain the public and wow, did they entertain.
Casey assembled a strong cast to portray the young children in the Spelling Bee. There is something a little weird about adults playing children; at times you can go a bit overboard in the simplification of a child’s mind and mannerisms, but for the most part, it was done for comic timing and general jocularity. Casey’s choreography was crisp, light and lively. How you have people dance during a Spelling Bee is beyond my imagination, but Casey did and I was entertained. The facility, stage, lights and sound of the Arts Center, normally reserved for the peaceful hanging of paintings and other art objects left much to be desired, but so did the former Playhouse. I sat in the back on my folding chair and because of the window air conditioning units, it was difficult to always hear the actors. They did get better as the show grew, belting out their songs with gusto to make up for a shaky sound system. At one time, during a scene involving a lot of running around and flag waving (don’t ask), the overhead microphones were hit and were swinging wildly causing more feedback problems. But that was minor compared to the voices they had on stage. The set itself was supposed to be like an elementary school and looked it, not necessarily a compliment. I don’t know honestly if I liked it or not. But again, that was not what you were looking at on stage. It was the talent.
Tressa McCallister Scibilia as Rona Perretti, Lauren Renahan as Olive Ostrovsky, Alex Pearlman as William Barfee, Taylor Webster as Marcy Park, Leo Altafini as Chip Tolentino, Catherine Logan as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, Peter Martino as Leaf Coneybear, Bryan Lesnick as Mitch Mahoney and Michael Zweig as Vice Principal Douglas Panch were all fun to watch and gave each character their unique reason to be at the Bee. Perretti was Jane Curtin-like in the role of the moderator/teacher of the Bee. Renahan’s sweet voice and innocent persona were a pleasure to enjoy and gave you hope for the future. Pearlman’s antics as Barfee and the “magical foot dance” was Steve Martin humor at its best. Webster’s cool, aloof, Catholic school co-ed, complete with plaid shirt, was a mystery that everyone found fascinating. There is fire behind that smoke. Altafini makes you smirk as he sings of a very adult situation that a young boy experiences during the Bee. His wonder-lust for a lovely young lady in the audience during his turn to spell causes his character to lose focus and thus other situations to arise. This is one reason why this show is NOT recommended for children, but adults eat it up. Logan was a comic’s comic and delivered lines with a lisp that you found funny, yet telling about the character she was portraying. Martino was a crowd pleaser with his facial expressions and quirky line cadence. Lesnick has a tremendous voice and paired with Renahan and Perretti in the song “The I Love You Song” captured my vote for best number of the night. Finally, Zweig as Vice Principal Panch was dry and witty as the moderator and judge of the Bee. Many, many laughs came pouring out of the audience after Zweig delivered line. Zweig also acted as Musical Director.
The show is closing this weekend. The group managed to only get enough time to do five shows in mid August to produce this enjoyable production. The hundred or so patrons that did see Friday’s performance loved it. Let’s hope that the new team of McBride/Casey and vets of the Playhouse continue to make up for the void in New Hope. This reviewer will be there when they do.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Directed by Stephen Casey
Remaining shows: August 20 at 2pm/8pm; August 21 at 2pm
at The New Hope Arts Center
2 Stockton Ave
New Hope, PA