IBJNews

LOU'S VIEWS: Under its spell

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Lou Harry

Ever since “A Chorus Line” unexpectedly took Broadway by storm in 1975, theater-goers have witnessed a parade of musicals in which a group of characters take turns revealing their inner thoughts.

“Runaways,” “Working,” “Mail,” “The Civil War” and even “Cats” all tried this character-over-plot, revue-style form, with varying degrees of artistic and financial success.
 

ae-putnam-15col Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (running through Jan. 30) further establishes it as one of the most durable—and hilarious— contemporary musicals. (Photo Courtesy Beef & Boards)

The best of the post-“Chorus Line” bunch, though, has been William Finn’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” which embraced not only the anecdotal structure of “A Chorus Line,” but also its “who will win?” driving force. The title contest offers an excuse to get to know a group of kids, each with different reasons for participating in and wanting to win (or not win).

There’s Olive Ostrovsky, who calls the dictionary her friend and waits meekly for her father to show up (Mom’s at an ashram in India). There’s William Barfee, whose surface bluster hides massive insecurity. Marcy Park is expected to be perfect at everything. Logan Schwartzand-grubenierre (a mashup of the surnames of her two dads) wears her differences defensively on her sleeve. Chip Tolentino shows his enthusiasm below the waist. And Leaf Coneybear, well, Leaf is his own special creation.

The new staging of “Bee” at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre (running through Jan. 30) is yet another reminder of how durable the show is.

This is the fourth production I’ve seen in as many years and each time reveals nuances in Finn’s score and Rachel Sheinkin’s book that makes me more of a fan. Each time, talented actors have found different ways to humanize these characters. Sometimes these choices are subtle (as written, Barfee is very specific, but Jayson Elliott is remarkable at showing where his façade cracks). Sometimes these choices are larger (Seth Tucker’s Leaf winningly comes across as a younger soul than others I’ve seen, unable to control his inner superhero).


ae-putnamfoot-1col William Barfee (Jayson Elliott) uses his “magic foot” to aid in his spelling in Beef & Boards’ “Bee.” (Photo Courtesy Beef & Boards)

Dominic Sheahan-Stahl’s Chip is more sympathetic than others I’ve seen in the part. His act II number—concerning a subject I never thought would be addressed at, ahem, length at Beef & Boards—won over the crowd with its confident, no-holds-barred delivery. Frankly, I was bracing for crickets. Instead, there was an ovation. Who says Beef & Boards audiences aren’t hip?

Beyond the “kids” (who are all played by adults), Paul Hansen is spot on as Vice Principal Panch, whose definitions and sentences bring some of the biggest laughs. DaRon Lamar Williams is in outstanding voice as paroled comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney. And Licia Watson gives an edge to former winner, now proctor, Rona Lisa Peretti. The latter two, changing characters to play Olive’s parents, help make the girl’s plaintive “I Love You Song” the evening’s most complexly moving sequence, with more layers than a Beef & Boards chocolate dessert (served at intermission).

I don’t normally spend so much time mentioning this many cast members. But I felt compelled to here because this talented ensemble did such a strong job of connecting to the audience. Credit should also go to director J.R. Stuart, who knows when to keep things moving and when to slow them down.

My only disappointment is that Beef & Boards didn’t totally embrace the spirit of the show as other theaters have. Why isn’t the lobby dressed up like a school for the occasion? Why no more effort to recruit audience participation spellers than a ho-hum fishbowl? And where’s the rectangular pizza on the buffet?
____________

Playwright Christopher Durang is an acquired taste that I have yet to fully acquire.

Best known for “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” and “Beyond Therapy,” Durang specializes in anything-can-happen absurdity as he redundantly wields themes as blunt instruments. But for all its smartie smartness, his satiric view seems far less sophisticated than an average episode of “The Daily Show.”

I was hoping his latest play, “Why Torture is Wrong … and the People Who Love Them” would help me see what all the Durang fuss is about. It concerns Felicity, a young woman who wakes up to find that, while drunk the previous night, she married the violent Zamir. Of course (?) she takes him home to meet her parents, an ultra-right-wing dad and a batty, theater-loving mom. A misunderstanding leads to the belief that Zamir is plotting a terrorist attack. And a not-for-the-squeamish black comedy ensues.

With a smattering of big laughs in the first act—including some obsession with French toast—Theatre on the Square’s production (running through Jan. 22) hints at a rich vein of humor under the surface. But it pains me to say that when Durang runs out of ideas and resorts to cartoonery, the TOTS company can’t quite build up the head of steam necessary to make the most of it. And when Durang tries to twist his ending to make a point, it falls flat.

Shining through, though, is Vickie Cornelius Phipps, as the mother. Yes, she’s got the daffiest, funniest part. But she handles the non sequiturs with joyful aplomb. And Dave Pelsue as the is-he-or-isn’t-he terrorist gives his hot-headed character just enough self-doubt to make us wonder why we don’t quite hate a guy who isn’t shy about using a date-rape drug.

These two understand that in order for us to buy in to Durang’s warped world, the characters need to believe in its truth. •

__________

This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com. Twitter: IBJArts and follow Lou Harry’s A&E blog at www.ibj.com/arts.
 

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
 
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. With Pence running the ship good luck with a new government building on the site. He does everything on the cheap except unnecessary roads line a new beltway( like we need that). Things like state of the art office buildings and light rail will never be seen as an asset to these types. They don't get that these are the things that help a city prosper.

  2. Does the $100,000,000,000 include salaries for members of Congress?

  3. "But that doesn't change how the piece plays to most of the people who will see it." If it stands out so little during the day as you seem to suggest maybe most of the people who actually see it will be those present when it is dark enough to experience its full effects.

  4. That's the mentality of most retail marketers. In this case Leo was asked to build the brand. HHG then had a bad sales quarter and rather than stay the course, now want to go back to the schlock that Zimmerman provides (at a considerable cut in price.) And while HHG salesmen are, by far, the pushiest salesmen I have ever experienced, I believe they are NOT paid on commission. But that doesn't mean they aren't trained to be aggressive.

  5. The reason HHG's sales team hits you from the moment you walk through the door is the same reason car salesmen do the same thing: Commission. HHG's folks are paid by commission they and need to hit sales targets or get cut, while BB does not. The sales figures are aggressive, so turnover rate is high. Electronics are the largest commission earners along with non-needed warranties, service plans etc, known in the industry as 'cheese'. The wholesale base price is listed on the cryptic price tag in the string of numbers near the bar code. Know how to decipher it and you get things at cost, with little to no commission to the sales persons. Whether or not this is fair, is more of a moral question than a financial one.

ADVERTISEMENT