Standing Room Only’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” wasn’t your usual community theater fare.
It was better.
I cozied up in one of the cushy, plush couches that can be found amid more traditional seating in the Triad Arts Theater Sunday, June 9, and waited for the show to start. The lights dimmed in the house and the stage lights illuminated the backdrops, which were painted like honeycombs in sunrise.
A tiny table and some chairs sat on one side of the stage, while a set of bleachers stood on the other. One microphone took point in the center of it all.
And that’s it.
The set was minimal, but effective.
You see, the show is a musical comedy about the contestants of a county spelling bee. The opening number began with Taylor Barnes’ charming Rona Lisa Peretti as she welcomed the cast and audience to the spelling bee in song.
As the show progresses, the audience gets to know the hopes, dreams and fears of each of the main contestants as they navigate the ultra-competitive spelling-bee culture.
As I watched, I marveled at how each of the characters became real for me.
Notably, there was the Dale Sharp’s amiable Leaf Coneybear, who makes his own clothes but thinks he’s dumb. There was Abigail Cox’s “not-all-business” Marcy Park, who is simply tired of overachieving. There was Savannah Creamer’s adorable Logaine Schwartzandgrunenierre, who just wants to make her dads proud.
Perhaps most impressive was Becki Perez’s turn as Olive Ovstrovsky. The character is a child fallen victim to neglect, but Perez really brings her to life through her razor-sharp understanding of the character’s intentions and her flawless portrayal of this young lady learning to find nurture and nourishment in the most unlikely of places — a spelling bee. And this is Perez’s first time as part of community theater. Bravo.
These characters, and those played by the rest of the cast, were impeccably acted.
During the down time that an actor has between songs and lines, they must engage in improvisation to keep the audience “in” the show. If an actor breaks character, even once, the whole world that actor is trying to build for the audience can crumble.
I’m pleased to say that these actors — with no small help from the great direction of Dawn Emilia I am sure — were able to stay in character and create convincing side conversations and engaging movements throughout.
Most of the time.
There were moments, few I must admit, but there were moments in between musical numbers that felt sluggish and forced. Now, this was not the norm, and because of the obvious talent of the cast and crew, I was surprised when they happened. I felt like it was the kind of thing that would have completely disappeared with just a couple more targeted run-throughs.
Nevertheless, these actors delivered especially in the song and dance sequences. I tip my hat to both choreographers Nylene Hubschman and Fred Loertscher, along with music director Claudia Simpson-Jones, for keeping my foot tapping, my ears pleased, and my eyes amazed by the spectacle created for audience members like myself.
I think Emilia deserves another shout-out for the superb blocking she created that had the storyline going between the past and the present with ease. It is clear to me that she learned how to communicate with each member of her cast, and leveraged that into helping them find their intentions.
The lighting was well designed and run with near perfection by Sterling Opsahl, even if some actors had a tiny bit a trouble finding that light. I’m not going to call anybody out, but you know who you are.
All jokes aside, he sound was effective thanks to Austin Hallford, and the costume design, done by Beth Olsen and Sharp, did its job.
My experience with this musical can best be summed up with the moment in time when one of the characters gets eliminated from the bee. The character went to the rest of the remaining cast members and said goodbye in a unique way for each one of them, showcasing not just the impeccable characterization, but the believable and distinct relationships those characters built throughout the show.
I felt like I was one of them.
I felt like I knew each of them.
And I’m better for it.
Standing Room Only Theater (SRO) Presents
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., through June 23. Visit www.SROtheater.org for more information, or to buy tickets.