Summer Stock Stage, which is a summer theater program for teenage students, built on its track record of presenting first rate entertainment with its production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Held over the weekend at the Ayres Auditorium at Park Tudor School, the production of the Tony award winning musical was seen by atombash.com Sunday.
What accounts for the success of the Summer Stock Stage program, founded by its artistic director Emily Ristine Halloway, are several factors—one being the talented students that, in this case, are drawn from 40 Central Indiana schools. The other has to do with the SSS staff, consisting of seasoned professionals who guide and mentor the young performers.
“Spelling Bee” producer Halloway is also a gifted actor and a skilled director. In fact she was the co-director of the hit “American Idiot,” a musical now playing at the Phoenix Theatre. “Spelling Bee’s” choreographer is Mariel Greenlee, a company member of Dance Kaleidoscope, who also happens to be associated with “American Idiot” as its co-choreographer. “Spelling Bee’s” director is actor Chuck Goad, familiar to local audiences for his starring roles at the Indiana Repertory Theatre and Phoenix Theatre. Goad’s most recent directing assignment was the Phoenix’s spring hit “Buyer and Cellar.”
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” written by Rachel Shinkin with music and lyrics by William Finn, tells the story of a fictional spelling bee in which six oddball teenagers compete for a slot in the National Spelling Bee. Chip (John Collins), Schwarzy (Allie Prein), Leaf Coneybear (Weston LeCrone), Nick Barfée (Nick Hornedo), Marcy (Elizabeth Hutson), and Olive (Paige Brown) are the six wunderkinds competing. Struggling with the same confusing issues that all teenagers undergo, these prodigies learn some valuable lessons about the costs and benefits of winning and losing. Displaying their own quirky idiosyncrasies were the competition judges Rona Lisa Peretti (Hope Fenning) and Douglas Punch (Aaron Huey). Adding to the hilarious proceedings was Ms. Mahoney (Kathleen Muloma), an ex-con doing community service by handing out hugs and juice boxes to the losing students. Other cast members played friends and family members watching the competition. Providing the show with elements of improvisation and thus, unpredictability, was the addition of four audience members chosen to participate on stage as spelling bee participants.
Director Goad, a fine character actor and comedian, had his stamp all over “Spelling Bee.” His choice of just the right performers made it possible for him to exact the most from the show’s outrageously funny script, filled with blue humor and tinged with pathos.
Standout performances included those of Collins as Boy Scout Charlito “Chip” Tolentino, the seemingly All-American boy who won the bee the previous year and whose lust for the sister of a fellow competitor gets the best of him, causing him to misspell a word and be eliminated. Later when his character is relegated to selling refreshments during the show’s intermission, Collins brought the house down while strolling through the audience singing “My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament)” as he flung candy bars out to the crowd.
Hornedo was also impressive as the sometimes somewhat hostile, arrogant and overly-confident contestant Barfée, a name constantly mispronounced as Barf-fee, and a source of annoyance for his character. Hornedo made the most of playing the geeky Barfée, celebrated for his method of spelling out words on the floor with his foot, uproariously demonstrated in “Magic Foot.”
Turning in a tremendous combined vocal performance (kudos to music director Jeanne Bowling) were Brown as Olive with Fenning and Huey doubling as her parents in “The I Love You Song.” Given the word chimerical to spell, Olive’s character sings the heartrending song as she imagines her parents being present to provide her with the love she has always yearned for. The trio’s outstanding harmony couldn’t have been more exquisite.
Contributing to the top notch professional quality of the show’s technical production was Michael Moffatt’s always exemplary lighting design (his lighting for “American Idiot” drew raves from this critic), celebrated artist Kyle Ragsdale’s art direction, Anwar Eaton’s exemplary sound design and Nolan Brokamp’s tight technical direction.
For tickets and information about Summer Stock Stage’s upcoming production of “Mary Poppins,” July 2-26, visit summerstockstage.com.