Theatre Review: “Spelling Bee” at Beef and Boards

On Thursday, December 30, for my last show of 2010, I drove to the northwest side of Indianapolis to the Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre for Media Night for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”  Because this theatre’s seasons run January-December, this is the first show of Beef and Boards’ 38th season.

There are a lot of talented cuties in this Tony Award-winning musical comedy and the service was excellent as usual so I had a wonderful time.  I also enjoyed talking shop with some of my fellow reviewers.

What the Show Is About

Six middle school students (played by adult actors) that are outsiders for one reason or another but which have won the spelling bees at their own schools are now competing at the county-wide level to see which one of them will go on to the next level of competition.

In between spelling words, the students and the three adults who are running the contest each have funny, relatable stories to confide about the family dynamics, health issues, accidents, and other circumstances that brought them to this event and about the anxieties that are driving them now that they are here.  Their interactions with each other, and the competition itself, advance the plot. 

On the surface, the plot is about who will win this particular contest, but the show as a whole is about many facets of winning and losing, of following rules and not in life, and of growing up.

I think it is also a show to enjoyably nudge adults into remembering their own early adolescences with either pleasure (if you won your middle school spelling bee, I bet you remember the word that won it for you!) or regret (I was crushed when the word “usury” knocked me out of mine) but most of all empathy: everyone has felt lonely or pressured at one time or another.

Four members of the audience become part of the show as additional spellers, which is a lot of fun, too.  The cast members do a great job of making the guests feel comfortable while maintaining the fast pace of the show.  If you want to be considered, be sure to put your name in the box in the lobby.

Artistic Considerations/Personal Responses

I very much enjoy working with real middle schoolers at my day job, so I appreciate the sensitivity shown by the adult actors that portray the middle schoolers in this show.  Their portrayals evoke affection and sympathy as well as laughter.

Seth Tucker is adorable as the invisible homeschooled hippie boy, Leaf Coneybear, whose inner superhero takes possession of him whenever he’s under the gun of a spelling word.

I was distracted more than once by the adult Dominic Sheahan-Stahl’s sexy knees but he portrays uniformed Boy Scout Chip Tolentino’s love-hate relationship with his middle school body with perfectly age-appropriate angst and humor.  He is a hoot!

Sarah Hund gives the tightly-braided Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, who is trying to be perfect for her two dads, an intensity that is funny but also a bravery that is admirable.

Kiyo Takami has perhaps the most difficult role to own and make come alive because the stereotype of the humorless, “business-like,” over-achieving Asian student is such a cliché.  Yet that is what her character, Marcy Park, comes to rebel against, too.  Kiyo shows Marcy’s transformation into authenticity with touching joy and wit.  I was tickled by the spiritual element of her process, too.

I loved sweet little Olive Ostrovsky as soon as the actor playing her, Tiana Checchia, began singing about how much she loved all of the words in the dictionary.  Tiana’s singing is lovely, and I completely and immediately related to Olive’s mixture of shyness and confidence.   Later, I didn’t so much relate but I was nonetheless moved by hearing her sing “The I Love You Song” in bittersweet combination with the strong, beautiful voices of her physically absent mother (Licia Watson) and her emotionally absent father (DaRon Lamar Williams.)   Both of these actors also nail other roles in the show.

Most of all, I loved watching the friendship grow subtly between Olive and William Barfe’e, played by Jayson Elliott.  William is obnoxiously, even disgustingly, funny at first, but he is a real caterpillar complete with spiny defenses protecting the potential butterfly inside, and Jayson conveys this layeredness marvelously. 

And Paul Hansen is hilarious as Vice Principal Panch.  Oh, my, I am laughing again, remembering some of the deadpan ways he answered the students’ requests to “use it in a sentence?” 

Audience/Appeal Factors

My press kit says that “This show is being given a ‘PG-13’ rating for some immodest humor.”   B&B’s media person Patricia Rettig told me that they usually pick something a little racy for their January show every year.

It’s true that this show has a little more bite than most B&B shows, sort of like the fact that the Blazing Red Fish on the buffet this time is spicier than most of the other entrée choices.  (Don’t worry, you can still get hand-carved roast beef, baked chicken, and/or stuffed pasta shells, too.)

But between you and me, it is still a pretty wholesome show.  If hearing a funny song about getting an unexpected, unwanted erection will prompt questions from your children that you don’t want to discuss yet, then don’t bring your children.  On the other hand, don’t worry that you will see any actual erections in the flesh.  Nor will you hear details about anyone enjoying them.

I would feel comfortable seeing this funny musical with the adult and teen members of my family, with my co-workers, or with people that don’t go to the theatre very often.

Media Night Reception

My invitation to this particular Beef and Boards Media Night included a pre-show reception upstairs in the “Producer’s Table,” which is that glassed-in, usually dark room that you can see if you look up from one of the regular tables.  I was delighted for the chance to see what it was like up close. 

It is a cozy, carpeted room with speakers in the corners that allow the sound to be piped in if you are up there during a show.  I think I prefer to be closer to the actors, with not even glass between us during a show, but I can also understand the attraction of having a bird’s eye view and the feeling that you are special.  After all, that is the reason that people pay big bucks for the V.I.P. boxes at sporting events.  And I did feel special, eating my giant shrimp and stuffed mushrooms and looking out over the crowd.

I also enjoyed chatting with:

…and later, after the show, a reviewer from a Jewish newspaper, and his wife.  I thought I would remember their names, but I should have written them down.  Again, I will watch the Beef’s website to see when Patricia posts a link to their (his) review.  Anyway, I enjoyed meeting them.  I write Indy Theatre Habit here in my home office all by myself so it is nice sometimes to be able to talk with other reviewers (or commentators or whatever you want to call us) about what we do.

Who Did What in the Show

Since I want the basic information from my program to be searchable later here on my blog, I am recording it here:

William Finn wrote the music and lyrics.  Rachel Sheinkin wrote the book.  This piece was conceived by Rebecca Feldman.  Jay Reiss provided additional material.  It was originally directed on Broadway by James Lapine and originally produced on Broadway by David Stone, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitmas, Patrick Catullo, Barrington Stage Company, Second Stage Theatre.  The show won 2005 Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical and Best Featured Actor.

This show was directed at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre by J. R. Stuart, with musical direction by Kristy Templet, choreography by Doug King, costumes by Jill Kelly, scenic design by Michael Layton, sound design by Daniel Hesselbrock, light design by Ryan Koharchik, and technical direction by Bill Mollencupp.

It stars Tiana Checchia as Olive Ostrovsky; Jayson Elliott as William Barfe’e; Paul Hansen as Vice Principal Panch; Sarah Hund as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre; Dominic Sheahan-Stahl as Chip Tolentino; Kiyo Takami as Marcy Park; Seth A. Tucker as Leaf Coneybear; Licia Watson as Rona Lisa Pevetti; and DaRon Lamar Williams as Mitch Mahoney.

The Beef and Boards orchestra consists of conductor Kristy Templet on keyboard, Neil Broeker on woodwinds, and Tim Kelly on percussion.

Adam was my server.

Box Office

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs through January 30, 2011 at the Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre.  Ticket may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 317-872-9664 between 10am and 7pm Tuesday through Sunday, and 10am to 6pm Mondays.  Tickets include Chef Odell Ward’s dinner buffet, fruit & salad bar and unlimited coffee and tea.  Discounts are available for groups of 20 or more.  For more information or show schedule, visit www.beefandboards.com.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

(Photo of the full cast, above, was taken by Julie Currie.)

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