Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pit and Balcony's "Putnam Spelling Bee" on steroids, but has its moments

review by Janet I. Martineau
One of the musical numbers in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is titled “Pandemonium.”
Indeed...there is nothing orderly about this fictional spelling bee portrayed in  the Tony-winning musical, which opened a two-week run Friday night at Saginaw’s Pit and Balcony Community Theatre.
The six competing “kids” are off-the-wall characters -- like spelling the words out  beforehand with their feet, having no friends but the dictionary, and experiencing an erection at the most unfortunate of moments.
The exotic words they have to spell come with the most hilarious and goofy definitions and/or uses in a sentence one can imagine. Their biographies, and the biographies of four volunteer guest spellers from the audience, are edgy.
Serving as the rules-of-order official is a guy performing community service. There are contemporary pop culture references (eg. Charlie Sheen for one).
Oh, and Jesus Christ himself makes an appearance at one point -- a really, really tall Jesus Christ whose drops a killer of a line as he departs.
Yep. Nothing much is sacred in this adult play about kids.
It is our first time seeing this show, directed for Pit by guest director Michael Walling, so we have no way to compare it to other productions. But in our eyes (or more precisely, ears) it comes across as suffering from an overdose of steroids.
Yes, it needs to be high energy because kids are high energy and this is a wacky musical comedy spoof of spelling bees. But Walling has ramped things up to such a high speed, and has the musical numbers delivered at such a high volume, it all but spins out of control. Too many times the words, spoken and sung,  are lost in that noise and high speed. And forget any nuances of characters.  Less would have been so much more.
Somehow Ann Russell-Lutenske, Steve Maksymuik and Lori Fulsher seem to know that and deliver toned-down performances which are full of nuances and clear diction, and because of that their characters become endearing to us -- Russell-Lutenske as the moderator and a former spelling bee champ, Maksymuink as the vice principal who announces the words and gives their meanings and uses in a sentence, and Fulsher as a clumsy competitor whose mother is on a spiritual journey in India and whose father is working late.
It is interesting that the production’s two best musical numbers involve the two women -- Fulsher’s poignant “My Friend, the Dictionary” and the sensationally delivered trio “The I Love You Song,” with Russell-Lutenske doubling as the Indian mother and Sawandi Johnson (also cast as the community service guy)  as the working father. Every word, every emotion, every inflection is there in those two numbers.
Greg Allison is the speller with the dancing foot, Andrew Fergerson the Boy Scout speller, Tabetha James the cocky transfer student who speaks six languages, Mandee Wunderle the speller with a lisp and Spencer Wunderle the cape-clad kid who fears that “I’m Not That Smart.”
Each does have a moment or two of clarity -- and their costumes and hair styles are a riot. Spencer Wunderle is wonderful when he, in flash, goes from flighty nerd to deep-voiced manchild when he spells a word. And all of them are convincing as children despite being adults, and in the delightful strobe light/slow motion segment they are Right On in their line delivery. But overall, each of them is more caricature  than character, and rushes the delivery too much, and they are not quite a solid ensemble yet.
Walling’s school gymnasium set is full of detail and is colorful. and Sara Taylor’s five-member musical combo excellent.

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