Friday, July 1, 2011

Funny bumbling at Edge Bee

Posted By on Fri, Jul 1, 2011 at 1:21 PM

There are a couple of ways to go in casting The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. On Broadway and on tour, I’ve seen the conventional path, bringing in an all-adult cast to portray the former spelling champ hostess, the stuffed-shirt assistant principal officiating the bee, and the convict who comforts the losers as his public service work punishment – while others regress into the six awkward kids who compete for this year’s trophy.

Down in Rock Hill – and as you’d probably expect at South Pointe High School – Edge Theatre Company mostly did it the other way, with director Anne Lambert using young actors to portray even younger spellers. The result is distinctively different: instead of the oversized and overly childish spellers you may have seen before, Edge Theatre’s are more like overly nerdy teens. Less exaggerated.

A tad more realism was clearly a good way to go when you’re presenting a musical about eighth graders in a high school auditorium. How Lambert will change things this weekend when the show transfers to The Warehouse in Cornelius will be a fascinating study. The storefront on Westmoreland Road probably doesn’t seat five times as many people who are in the cast. Toss in three additional spellers plucked out of the audience plus a four-piece Bee Band to play the William Finn score and you have some heavy traffic.

The changes were likely drastic enough for Cornelius to require additional blocking, tech, and music rehearsals while the Rock Hill run was still in progress. As a former national finalist who is sick of being known as the overachieving Asian, Vivian Tong portrays the most normal of the kids, Marcy Park, the odds-on favorite to earn a repeat trip to Washington. With parents whose lives are apparently too full for her to be included in them, Olive Ostrovsky is a little further from the borderline of normal, and Cassandra Howley Wood gets to do the power vocals of this most needy contestant.

Jonathan Hoskins draws the role of the fluky flake, Leaf Coneybear, who is substituting for the actual spelling bee winner at his school – and for the second place substitute as well. Perhaps marginally weirder is Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, because she has been raised by two gay guys and dresses in glad-rag hand-me-downs. I’m saying perhaps here because neither me nor my wife was able to decipher any seven consecutive words uttered by Abby Corrigan as Logainne. Was she attempting an accent – or trying to sound deaf? We couldn’t figure it out, but Corrigan was certainly goofy and likable as far as we could tell.

Awkward, accident prone, and convinced that the key to spelling victory resides in his magic foot, William Barfée (the accent is religiously ignored by both the school officials) is probably the most adorably comical of the spellers. Zachary Henderson showed me the potential to fully grasp this lovable, eccentric lunk, but he refuses to subvert his marvelous voice to do the role properly. This is more like Seymour in Little Shop than Curly in Oklahoma.

Boy Scout contestant Chip Tolentino may be viewed as either a hilarious tragic hero or somebody local cops need to put on their watch list. Grant Zavitkovsky draws Chip’s showstopping solo to start Act 2, “My Unfortunate Erection,” showering the audience with candy as he explains his downfall. He’s a disgrace to the uniform, I tell you.

As the gruff comfort counselor, Derrick J. Hines allows Mitch’s indifference to the sufferings of the losers gracefully dissolve over the course of the contest, and Michael Kahn as assistant principal Panch reads the snarky word definitions with a deliciously cool officiousness – except for one shockingly human moment. Counterbalancing Panch’s excessive gravity, Caitlin Gilliland has a nicely calibrated pep as our hostess, Rona Lisa Peretti. Youngest of actors playing the adult roles, Peretti radiates a youthful outlook: No matter how times she sings that this is her favorite part of the bee, she honestly seems to believe it.

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