To close out the old year and bring in the new, ProArts Playhouse, Maui's most adventurous theater company, has chosen William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin and Rebecca Feldman's Tony Award-winning hit, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." The hilarious comedy features a crackerjack cast of misfits, miscreants, malcontents and mischief-makers.
Jonathan Lehman directs the magical menagerie, making this exceptionally difficult work look flawlessly easy. When you consider the premise--a play about a spelling bee--it's a pretty ho hum idea. But under Lehman's capable direction, with terrific support from Musical Director Kim Vetterli and Choreographer Sarah Loney, the play comes alive with hilarity, poignancy and some excellent singing.
Finn is more like Stephen Sondheim than Rogers or Hammerstein or even Jerry Herman. His songs are complex both musically and lyrically. For example, one of the lines in the opening number is, "We hear the word. We breathe. We wait. Unlike idiots, we ideate." It's like Cole Porter, who wrote the only song with ennui in it. However, the music's complexity, much of which is more like recitative, only makes it more interesting and the lyrics really come to the fore.
Ashlyn-Jade Aniban twirls a baton and hula hoop while singing “I Speak Six Languages,” as Gary Shin-Leavitt as Vice Principal Douglas Panch looks on.
Photo: Jack Grace
Apart from wonderful characters we care about very much, the show involves the audience, literally. Three members of the audience are asked to join the cast and are used to hilarious effect. They get some slow pitch words like Mexican and cow, but when it is time to go they get more difficult ones.
The other aspect of the show that keeps it fresh each night is the improvisation "written" into the script. Most of what Vice Principal Douglas Panch says when a speller asks, "Can you use it in a sentence?" are ad-libs by the wonderfully funny Gary Shin-Leavitt.
Kisha L. Milling is Rona Lisa Peretti, a former spelling bee champ who now helps run the bee. Milling showed she was a marvelous actor in last year's production of "Doubt" and her wonderful singing was revealed in "Rent." In Bee, she combines both of these talents, along with some pretty hot backup singing. She has a huge Aretha Franklin-like vocal instrument.
Every one of the spellers was superb. The hippy speller, Leaf Coneybear, was Jeff Brackett. Coneybear starts out thinking he's not smart enough, and when he spells "acouchi" correctly, he questions that premise.
As the abandoned child--her mom is in India on a nine-month retreat and her dad is in work trying to make it to the bee--Christina Sutrov's Olive Ostrovsky is a joy. Sutrov is an excellent singer. Her solo's in "My Friend the Dictionary" and "The I Love You Song" were among the musical highlights of the evening.
Justin House is the other speller who steals the show. He plays super-nerd William Barfee, which he insists in pronounced "bar fay" not "bar fee," the way everyone seems to want to say it much to their amusement and House's consternation. His character's quirk is that he spells out his word with his magic foot. House and choreographer Loney look like they had a lot of fun working out how he would do this.
Ashlyn-Jade Aniban, a sophomore at Kamehameha Schools Maui, plays super-overachiever Marcy Park, who attends parochial school, speaks six languages, plays the 'ukulele, does a mean cartwheel and hula hoops and twirls a baton simultaneously while singing. Pretty great!
Isaac Rauch, who was so good as Angel in "Rent" this past summer, is returning champ Chip Tolentino, who is tripped up by his inability to control his emotions, which express themselves in an embarrassingly physical way. He is priceless in both "Chips Lament" and when he returns as Jesus.
As the complicated Logainne Schwartsandgrubenierre, Lily Marceau, another high-schooler (she attends King Kekaulike), affected a speech impediment, sang exceptionally and created a character who has two dads. Brackett doubled as one of her dads and Scott Smith played the other. Smith also played the comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney. There couldn't be more contrast between two characters.
Caro Walker once again has maximized the confines of the ProArts Playhouse by creating a multi-scene set through the clever use of rear screen projections. Bonny Prucha's lighting also helped to change the setting effectively.
Kim Vetterli did excellent work with this very difficult musical score. The singing was as good as it could be. Vetterli also played keyboards for the performance, and her husband, Richard, helped out on percussion.
The show runs two weekends through Sunday, Dec. 22, and then returns after the New Year for two more weekends from Jan. 3 through 12. It plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
ProArts offers reserved seats at $25. Kama'aina Nights, with discounts for Hawaii' residents, are scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 19 and Jan. 9.