'Putnam' engages audiences again

By Jerome Stuart Nichols | Life Editor
Added September 11, 2011 at 9:27 pm

At “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” songs were sung, dances were danced and words were spelled. It was a wonderful place where we learned all sorts of universal truths about life. Truths like life is pandemonium, guacamole is Mexican pudding and how to spell the word “lugubrious.”

I’m not sure how useful these lessons will be in real life, but they were fun to watch on stage at the Sponberg Theater.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a Tony Award-winning and Grammy Award-nominated musical comedy based on the book of the same name by Rachel Sheinkin. Like many coming-of-age stories, it follows of a group of kids on the cusp of puberty trying to solve the problems in their lives. The spelling bee serves as the setting to
underscore the struggles of each student.

Although the premise of the story, if anything but original, the way it is told and worked out over the course of the play makes it quite enjoyable to watch.

Having known nothing of the play or its history prior to taking my seat at Friday night’s performance, I was pleased with the show’s vibrance. My experiences with musical theater are wide and varied but tend to skew toward the classic. Unlike classics such as “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has a sensibility that a modern audience should find more inviting.

Unfortunate erections and overbearing gay dads are topics I couldn’t fathom coming in the form of a Fosse epic, but here they worked in a way that didn’t seem forced or like an attempt to modernize an aged script, which is refreshing.

The interactive portion of “Putnam” was beneficial to the overall experience. During the show, four preselected audience members were brought up on stage to compete in the spelling bee with the six main character competitors. In Friday night’s performance, the volunteers added a pleasant sense of self-referential reality to the slightly over-the-top antics of the main characters.

Overall, this Ken Stevens-directed production was quite a fun experience. But if I had to highlight one thing, it would be the music. Conductor R. Mackenzie Lewis, keyboardist Chris Ranney, percussionist Billy Harrington and reed player Alexandros Syropoulos did a fantastic job bringing the music, composed by William Finn, to life.

After the performance I heard several audience members noting the music’s quality.

“They did an excellent job with the music,” said Chardae James, a sophomore at Eastern Michigan University. “I was getting goose bumps when Olive was singing about her mother.”

I have to agree. Stephanie VanAlstine’s rendition of “The I Love You Song” as Olive Ostrovsky was powerful, and the musical accompaniment made the performance feel Broadway-ready.

Of the main players, I really enjoyed Nathan Corliss’ portrayal of nerd archetype William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay) with his magic foot. Corliss embodied the character in a way that was convincing yet still explosively over-the-top. Although typical with this sort of character, I never believed Corliss was actively acknowledging the audience. That decision elevated a basic, one-dimensional and under-developed character to one worthy of mention.

While I enjoyed Corliss’ performance, I also was enthralled by the interplay between Maxim Hunt as Vice Principal, Chip Tolentino and Kelley Stonebraker as school administrator Rona Lisa Peretti.

From the moment Chip walks on stage and announces that he is in “a better place” after an incident involving a rodent and a bag of nuts, the show only got funnier.

Stonebraker and Hunt bounced off one another so naturally, I forgot I was watching a play. Most of the time it seemed more like a well-rehearsed Laurel and Hardy or Three Stooges routine than a scripted interaction.

From what I could tell, most of their hilarious banter was improvised. If it wasn’t, then EMU might have a pair of stars on its hands.

The rest of the cast did a great job embodying their characters and gave me a positive outlook for future productions.

While I enjoyed the show overall, there was a short period near the end where I believed things started to fall apart, which might be the fault of the script rather than the acting. Regardless, the cast was able to pull it back together and finish the second half with the same strength and punch as the beginning.

Also, I was unimpressed by much of Victoria Morgan’s performance as rabid overachiever Marcy Park. Her acting felt stiff and failed to charm me. She did have a moment of brightness during her solo number, “I Speak Six Languages,” but for the majority of the show, she felt distant.

This three-night special performance was the second run for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at EMU. Over the spring semester it was a great success and was brought back for this second run due to popular demand. The play’s run ended Sunday.
If you missed this show, then make sure you get your tickets for the next one. “The Imaginary Invalid” will begin its run in the Quirk Theater on Oct. 14.

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