The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The Calhoun Community College theatre department is running The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, their first show in their beautiful brand-new Alabama Center for the Arts performance space, in downtown Decatur.  This is a fun show, with a lot of laughs, but it is rated PG-13, so think twice before bringing the younger kids.

The premise is a county spelling bee, with older elementary children competing for a shot to participate in the national spelling bee.  Through musical flash-backs and dream sequences, we learn more about the children, and come to realize that while they may seem “odd” on the surface, they are actually very normal kids in often abnormal family situations.  There are six adult actors playing child competitors (and the show poster provides pics of them at the right age), but the extra fun part of this show is that four pseudo-randomly selected audience members are pulled from the crowd to round out the field and vie for a chance to win the bee.  The show is full of real spelling words, and unreal song and dance numbers, with the cast bringing a lot of energy and characterization to an important time in these kids’ lives.

Bill Provin’s direction is lively and entertaining, but there are some problems.  At times, the action lags a bit more than it should, as the actor’s “enjoy their jokes” a bit much; and there are moments when actors not involved in a musical number are actually pulling focus by making side winks-and-nods to the audience while they wait for the song to end.  This production made the choice to fill all the bit parts with more performers (to include one of the supposed audience volunteers), rather than the scripted concept of the kid competitors taking on multiple roles.  This is understandable for a college theatre department trying to give opportunities to the maximum number of people, but it dilutes the impressiveness of the production a bit.  All that said, it’s a very entertaining staging in a challenging thrust configuration, with the audience on three sides and practically in the performers’ laps.  Granville Oldham, as the music director, did a fine job of pulling the most from performers who weren’t always up to the demands of the score; and  the band, “Newt and the Bookworms”, played wonderfully.  Angela Green’s choreography is lively and energetic, and the montage numbers, in particular, were quite impressive at being both visually interesting, and moving the plot and character arcs forward.

Daniel Moore, as “William Barfee”, and Erin Barrow, as “Olive Ostrovsky” are stand-outs, with both the acting chops and the singing talents to knock their roles out of the park.  The remainder of the contestants, Johnathan Little, Kelsey Parsons, Kyle Vellacott-Ford, and Jessica Miller all also do very well in their roles, and give us quite distinct characters, with a lot of energy and fun.  Vellacott-Ford’s hair-flip every five seconds got a bit annoying, but he does have one of the top singing voices in the cast.  Possibly the most beautiful singing was from Haylee Little, in a cameo moment as “Olive’s” mother.  Angela Green, as the contest organizer and color-commentator, “Rona Lisa Perretti”, is hilarious, and quite believable.  Phil Parker, as the word-reader, “Assistant coach Douglas Panch”, has the special challenge of thinking on his feet every night, because he has to deal directly with the audience-contestants who have no idea what is going on (other than trying to spell the next word).  Some of the pacing lags are at his feet, and on opening night he lost control of the show for several minutes when he let the young audience member stay at the microphone for more words, even after getting one wrong, thus ruining the illusion of our pretend “real” spelling bee. .  The audience knows she has to go (even before she misspelled the word), and while there is no question she was a cute kid, the show came to a stand-still for several minutes while we waited for him to finally send her to her seat.  That said, Parker has the stage savvy to handle the emcee role, and those moments were blips in an otherwise stellar performance.

The technical elements were very nice and supported the production well.  The set, by Bubba Godsey, is phenomenal.  For most people attending the show, this will be their first time in this space, and they may not realize how much work was done, because it all just looks right (it clicked for me when I actually read the championship banners hanging on the gym wall).  Aidan Crowe and Travis Craft faced the usual challenge of designing lights for a confined space, but pulled it off nicely.  The sound, by a raft of people, struggled with balance issues.  It seems a shame to need microphones in such a tiny performance space, but even with them, the band often drowned out the singing, unless the entire cast was involved.  A sound shield around the drums might fix the issue.  The costumes by an even bigger crowd, are really well done, and nicely capture the various character personalities.

Seriously, this is a funny show, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.  It could have been better, but not by much, and it could not possibly have had more energy and life.  This is a very enjoyable evening, and totally worth the time.  Performances continue through next Saturday, but make sure to click this link to see the show times and ticket information.

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