The Brown County Playhouse opens its summer season with an entertainingly produced, intellectually smart and winningly staged production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee directed by Jonathan Michaelsen.
Back at the old gym.
Patrons for the show are greeted with the thrust stage decorated like a high school gym complete with banners from athletic triumphs of years past. On the left is a set of mini-bleachers for the contestants, a banner proclaiming the contest hangs in the center and on the right there is the judges table with the winner’s trophy. Just behind the table there a tray of juice boxes as consolation for the losers.
Guest artist Susan Owen played the gracious hostess Rona Peretti, a former spelling champion and current champion realtor. She shared her memories with the audience and her place at the judges table with the school’s assistant principal played with charming nerdiness by Henry McDaniel. Guest Mitch Mahoney was the contest’s rough hewn designated consolation counselor.
The contestants, all played by good actors from IU with plenty of stage and musical experience, were just about the sort of mix that you’d expect and were pleasantly pleased to welcome. Matt Birdsong was the overconfident, over testosteroned kid. Mandy Striph had the interesting distinction of a lisp and two fathers. Russell Stout acting a little like a young Harvey Mandell was the goofy charmer. Mathew Martin was the abrasively overconfident nerd. Stephanie Cohen was the rock solid automaton in a role usually reserved for an Asian-American. Lovelee Carol in a role that was the best fit of any I’ve seen for her was the shy kid from the other side of the tracks.
Each of the spellers had a distinctive style. A few were most memorable. Mandy Striph wrote her words on her arm and then signed the letters as she said them. Russell Stout’s approach was to appear totally flabbergasted and then to seem receive the answer from some sort of mechanical telegraph. Mathew Martin’s spelling looked a bit like a graceful soft-shoe. He traced the letters of each word with his foot. Lovelee Carol whispered her guesses to her cupped hand before delivering them to the microphone.
During the first part of the show four members from the audience are recruited for some initial success and then to take a fall. Saturday night’s good natured guests included a man who looked as if he might be Mandy Striph’s father and a young fellow who could be Henry McDaniel’s brother. I expect that the cast for these roles will change from night to night.
Music versus weather and electronics
The music for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is adequate and the cast sings it well. Saturday night’s show had to contend with the pounding of a strong thunderstorm, but it couldn’t be blamed for the poor sound reinforcement. Words were often lost and the whole system seemed to lack bass or mid range.
The show is rich in individual performances and does have highlights besides the individual word challenges. Fairly early in the evening, everyone on stage gives in to the tension of the evening with a wild swinging Pandemonium scene in which the spellers and even the hostess, judge and counselor all go a bit crazy. I also enjoyed a dream sequence with Lovelee Carol imagining a warm scene with her Ashram residing mother and equally missing truck driver father.
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker.