I love the Spelling Bee. It’s my favorite musical comedy and so when CCM announced it was part of their studio series this year my heart swelled. It plays so well in small spaces like this and I couldn’t wait to see a cast list. Then I heard Raven Thomas was cast as the normally male “Mitch Mahoney” and I really got intrigued. This could easily make or break the show, I thought. I knew she had the vocal chops to do anything she wanted, but could she play “tough enough?” And then I saw that the entire cast were sophomores and juniors who hadn’t really been spotlighted at CCM to this point and I marked my calendar to line up early on Monday morning of the show to get my free ticket.
Because this is my favorite show and because I’ve seen two different productions four times each, I have a lot of opinions about how this show should be performed and directed. I will go into some great detail (nitpicking is the correct word), but please read this next sentence over and over before proceeding: This production is amazing and I am a giant fan of the entire cast and what they did with the show. Did you read that? Read it again one more time just to be sure. Now . . . you may continue.
Here are some detailed and specific thoughts and critiques:
- I love atmosphere character acting. I was seated next to Olive (“Gina Santare”) coincidentally and she was absolutely in character from the minute she walked into the space. She had her phone, she was anxiously checking it, trying to reach her father, and right before she went on stage she whispered to me to save the seat for him. She even marked the chair with an Olive-esque prop. I also was able to pay attention to the pre-show antics of “Leaf Coneybear” (DJ Plunkett) and he too was completely in character, in awe of being inside a gymnasium for the first time and just being an attentionally deficient sweetheart.
- Madeleine Spacapan is stunning as Rona Lisa Peretti. She doesn’t over do the “beauty pageant queen” antics that one might be tempted to do in the role, but keeps her grounded and nurturing, while having a laugh or two at the hilarity of the children. It felt real and authentic and her singing voice is as good as anyone’s. I was in awe of her soaring vocals throughout the show. I’ll have more on that in a moment.
- Tyler Huckstep as Vice Principal Panch was very good, but I have some issues with some of the choices made. At first I wasn’t thrilled with his costume, as it seemed a little too hipster and fashionable, but since the actor is only in his early 20s, without makeup and hair it would be hard to make him into my personal vision of Panch. I see the character as a mid-40s, underachieving, below average guy . . .tense, anxiety ridden and perhaps a little dangerous (hence Rona’s restraining order). I’d definitely like him to be snarkier, more sarcastic, and 100% in control of the audience spellers. This is particularly important when someone sneaks past the screeners and tries to “act” and pull focus away from the cast. When this happens, Panch must immediately put them in check, humiliate them just a little, and also get them immediately off the stage. I suspect if Huckstep was able to do this show for a few more weekends, he would gain the confidence and experience to be as firmly in control as I prefer. Just my opinion – remember I warned you, I am going to nitpick at this production just a little. All of this said, please hear me: Panch does have some very funny moments and lines in this production and I think Tyler Huckstep is an incredible talent. It was nice to get to hear him sing “The I Love You Song” as Olive’s father in place of the traditional casting, which has Mitch Mahoney play that role. He sounded incredible and again, I can’t wait to tell you more about this in a moment.
- Clara Cox as “Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre” broke my heart when she lost. What a terrific actress and I cannot wait to see more from her. What a terrific actress; making me laugh one moment and nearly crying the next and sometimes both at the same time. Logainne’s story is a tragic one, played mostly for laughs, but Cox seemed to understand just how sad this little girl has to be on the inside. Beautiful job and her lisp was 99% perfect in that I didn’t not hear all but maybe one of lines in spite of it.
- DJ Plunkett (who I believe was sorely underrated this summer in “Big River” at the Showboat Majestic despite being under supported by most of the rest of the cast) tackled the role of “Leaf Coneybear” with such professionalism and talent that I don’t know where to begin. His timing – knowing when to pause, when to change his facial expressions, all of it – was perfect. He captured the sweetness of the character in a way that I’ve not seen before including the original Broadway version which I’ve seen videos of. His understanding of ADHD appeared deep and his rendition of “I’m Not That Smart” was hilarious and moving. Like with Cox, his depth of character development caused me to tear up (just a little). He made me feel what it must be like to be the black sheep of a family like his, especially when such a sensitive boy. I’ve struggled with connecting to Leaf in previous productions (though Colin Kessler’s take on it at the Showboat was fantastic) but now I can say I’ve fallen in love with Mr. Coneybear. His comedic exit is laugh out loud funny. Oh, and his stuff as Carl-Dad was spot on, too. Such a drastic difference between both characters but this precise performance tells me that this young man has a limitless future.
- I’ve always believed that there was not a true villain in this show until I saw Chris Collins-Pisano’s “Chip Tolentino.” At first, I was a little taken aback at how much I didn’t care for his character but after thinking about it, I think that is exactly the point. Chip is last year’s winner and the favorite to win this year again. He is cocky and a bully and a little entitled (“Ms. Peretti, can I have another chance please?” Really, kid?) Again, giving him the opportunity to play the bad guy and then return as Jesus at the end . . . well, this show is just so well written. I love it. And of course, his song is a crowd pleasing hit but when he takes out his aggression on Barfee (with an aside of “I heard you fart up there”) it helps build audience empathy for the real male underdog of this show and gives us more reasons to like William in spite of his many unlikeable characteristics.
- Speaking of that, Thomas Knapp’s “William Barfee” is just a touch too sarcastic for my tastes. In my perfect version of the show he shouldn’t be as aware of what’s going on around him. He’s book smart but not socially adept so when he finally loses it and calls Panch out on getting his name wrong towards the end of the show, that moment hits harder and makes more of a comedic impact. I will say that I felt like the subtlety of the character grew from what I saw on Wednesday night’s preview (he was really aggressive with his asides during the preview) into a more subdued and empathetic version today. But you know what isn’t subtle? The most amazing rendition of “Magic Foot” that I’ve ever seen. This song is staged as a big time musical production number and Knapp nails every moment from his hip-shaking struts across the stage to his vocal prowess. It really is magical, no pun intended, and Knapp has great instincts on stage (his non-verbals as Dan, the other father, show his diversity). If he can reel it in just a bit, he will be a superstar.
- Speaking of subtle, “Marcy Park” as played by Samantha Pollino is exactly what she should be. In my opinion, this character is under developed in the script – kind of an enigma – and Pollino takes full advantage of every moment she’s given to shine. She is known for her incredible dancing. (Did you see “Singing in the Rain?” Shut. the. Front. Door. AMAZING.) Here she shows that she can sing and act, too. Her judo-throw of Huckstep is great and she even plays the piano during “I Speak Six Languages,” which isn’t always done. Good for her.
- Raven Thomas can saaang. Even in a lower key than she’s probably used to, she belts her face off and does that gospel number (“Prayer of the Comfort Counselor”) in a way that had me wanting to jump to my feet. I just adore her stage presence and her tough-girl-with-a-soft-spot-somewhere-in-there was everything it needed to be. While she didn’t steal the show as I had predicted, she didn’t need to and I am glad she didn’t overdo it. It was just perfect.
- Finally, “Olive Ostrovsky” might be one of the saddest characters in all of musical theatre. I mean, come on, a mother who abandons her to go on a spiritual quest and a father who works too much and neglects his daughter. She is so hopeful that he’s going to come support her and yet he never does. She finds comfort from Vice Principal Panch of all people and is so starved for affirmation from an adult, that she is thrilled to pay her $25 entrance fee so that Rona will be happy with her. I want to punch both of her parents squarely in the face every time I see this show. Gina Santare, though, found something inside of Olive that made me absolutely lose it during “The I Love You Song.” I actually cried. And not just a tear down my cheek; like I was trying not to sob today as she (and Spacapan and Huckstep and the gorgeous orchestra supported her performance). Standing right there, center stage, with the focus squarely on her, this young woman stole my heart, stomped on it, and handed it back to me with a shy smile. I want to see her do more and right away. She was perfect.
- As we’ve come to expect from CCM, the lighting, set, and sound were all on point and added to the show without taking away from the performances. The audio was well balanced today and I thought the orchestra sounded great. It’s hard doing a show like this because audience reactions can be boisterously loud and unpredictable. The cast did a decent job of not losing any lines over the laughter but there were occasional problems today (but much less than during the preview). Good for the entire cast and crew for this marvelous show.
- One last thing . . . if you’ve seen CARRIE and LES MISERABLES and now this show, you got the “enough with the chairs already” line in a whole different context. This has been the year of chair choreography at CCM and I enjoyed that little self-depreciating reference. A lot.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is a wild success of a production. Despite my very specific and ultimately minor and personal (but hopefully constructive) criticisms, I hope you will believe me when I tell you that this show deserved a longer run and as many kudos as it can get. I loved it. I loved the entire cast, the harmonies were beyond incredible, and I can’t tell you enough how much I was moved by the show. I’m blown away more and more by the work of these talented performers and we are so lucky to have this Broadway training ground in our backyard. Take advantage of it next season and get a subscription and consider joining me by becoming a FRIEND OF CCM so we can continue to support this amazing program.