SPRINGVILLE – For many of us we’ve just been through the stressful holiday season so what better way to start off the new year but to have some laughs at our local community theater. Such is the experience offered at Utah Valley Players‘ new production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It is only playing through Jan. 9th so make sure to take advantage of the chance to see it this weekend.
Spelling Bee is a musical that burst onto the Broadway scene in 2005 (I saw it on Broadway in 2006.) It has music and lyrics by William Finn with a book by Rachel Sheinkin off of a concept by Rebecca Feldman and Jay Reiss. At the time it won 2 Tony awards.
On the surface it might sound like a very dull and boring show to watch kids at a spelling bee. It’s not a musical that is going to wow you with its choreography or incredible production design. In many ways it’s the simplicity that makes it an ideal show for community theaters like Utah Valley Players to do. The simplicity makes it easy for all involved to focus on the characters, performances and the very funny script.
The cast of Spelling Bee includes 9 actors with 6 playing students in the bee and 3 playing adults. There are also 4 volunteers from the crowd who are asked to participate in the bee. This can lead to very funny sequences, especially if the volunteers unexpectedly get a hard word right and the judges have to improvise.
Indeed, any version of this show requires some improvisation particularly on the part of one the judges, Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who gets a lot of laughs for his ‘use this word in a sentence’ ad libs and lines. My favorite is when student Leaf Coneybear keeps getting South American rodents like capybara to spell: “Don’t look now but I think that’s a capybara swimming next to you.” Lines like that lead to peals of laughter, and Kacey Spadafora is up for the challenge of the role of Panch at UVP.
Bailee Morris is also strong as former spelling bee champion turned judge Rona Lisa Peretti and Nathan Mendez Wawro has a lot of fun with the cigarette smoking comfort counselor helping the kids with juice boxes Mitch Mahoney.
In fact, the whole cast is strong including the “kids.” One of the aspects that most impressed me is the physicality of the performances. Since the production is simple (just basically a room with bleachers, 2 tables and microphone) it’s up to the actors to make the characters come alive with their animated and active choices. For example, when Leaf played by Ethan Freestone sings “I’m not that smart” his whole body is involved in the song and he uses the entire stage to tell his story. Brianna Meikle was also effective making Olive an endearing and easy-to-root-for character. She’s a very lonely character, and we see that with her story arc involving her absent parents and songs like “My Friend the Dictionary.”
Like I said, director Zack Elzey has worked to get the best out of all of his actors helping them to be memorable and witty versions of these characters. I particularly appreciated when characters came out into the audience to sell snacks or comment on the action. Freestone is especially funny at this sitting right next to me and asking if I was enjoying the bee. It’s always a clear sign of a well-directed show when all the little details are taken into account, and that’s what you get at UVP.
The authors of this show have approved a modified version of Chip’s song “My Unfortunate Distraction” performed by Cameron Ward. I have never seen a company in Utah County that has opted for the original version, which UVP did in this case. I think it is hilarious but it might be too vulgar for some.
There is also a scene where perfect Marcy Park (played by Mattea Denney) sings with Jesus that might be too irreverent for some audiences, but I laughed. The production was also very solid with only some frustration at the backing track they had seeming to make the actors rush through the songs a little bit. They also had a few microphone issues but most of those were resolved fairly quickly so it didn’t impede my enjoyment at the performances.
I will say that the Rivoli theater in Springville where the production is taking place is right on Main Street in Springville. If your GPS is like mine it might send you a block behind the theater, which was a little confusing.
Nevertheless, it’s no secret that most of us can use some good laughs this time of year when it’s gray and we miss the lights of Christmas. This makes Spelling Bee at UVP the perfect way to clear up those winter-time blues and remember how fun and stressful it could be to be a kid, and particularly a kid in a spelling bee!