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Theater Review: Timber Lake Playhouse closes 49th season with hilarious Spelling Bee

August 18, 2010

By Bill Beard

After a summer of five previous successes, Timber Lake Playhouse closes this next week with the 2005 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical spoof on a traditional, truly American school days competition: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. In a fast two hours of side-splitting fun, six endearing, “over-achieving spelling geeks” (along with four “volunteer” spellers from the audience) battle it out to find out whose hilarious and quirky personal methods will prevail to win the championship.

Originally created in a Berkshires summer improv workshop, it was further developed off Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre; then, premiered at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, where it ran 1,136 performances. Since then, it has become a favorite of regional, community and young theater troupes nationwide.

To direct this delightful romp, Timber Lake Playhouse has brought back the talented Lili-Anne Brown (director of last summer’s The Buddy Holly Story), who also brought with her some extremely talented performers (some of them TLP alumni). She has put together a brilliant cast! And she has handled the entire production with great skill.

All six spellers are beautifully-realized characters, bordering ever so closely sometimes on edge-balancing, audacious caricature. The absolutely flawless work of tiny Dana Tretta as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (who has two fathers), as well as the riotous, but always believable, antics of Chris Froseth as the zany Leaf Coneybear, top the list of “best developed” characterizations. Coneybear has the funniest song of the show: “I’m Not That Smart!” And Ms. Tretta created one of most complete characters I’ve ever enjoyed.

But the other four are pushing that top level throughout the show as well: C.J. Langdon as William Barfee (pronounced BarFAY, who spells with his “Magic Foot” as he speaks); Daniel W. Switzer, from St. Louis by way of Rockford College, as Chip Tolentino (who finds puberty hitting at an inopportune moment); Elisa Carlson as the multi-skilled Marcy Park (who speaks six languages and is super sports girl and super musician); and the very lovable Samantha Dubina as Olive Ostravsky (whose mother is in an ashram in India and whose father is too involved in business to attend).

These roles are all extreme, demanding complete concentration at every moment. All six of these actors were right on target at all times.

The three adult roles complete this highly- skilled company. The host of the Bee, Rona Lisa Peretti, is expertly handled by guest artist Sharriese Hamilton, with a marvelous soprano voice and a commanding stage presence. Daniel Riley is excellent as Mitch Mahoney, doing his “community service” as the Bee’s “comfort counselor.” Ms. Hamilton and Mr. Riley also fill in a trio as Olive’s mother and father in Olive’s imagination, as she sings the most beautiful song, and really the only song that even pretends to be beautiful, in the whole show, “The I Love You Song.”

Having loved that song since the first time I ever heard it, I was concerned Ms. Dubina’s Olive sometimes seemed almost a bit too shrill and exaggerated (though I never once doubted her honesty!) to bring in the touching pathos of this heartrending song. However, the trio was indeed still beautifully poignant; although the vocal balance would have been better had the parents not been placed so far up stage and Olive a bit too strong down front.

Rounding out the cast, in the role of former Vice Principal Douglas Panch as official word-reader (returning from a five-year hiatus after an “incident”) is former TLP Artistic Director Brad Lyons. With his superb sense of wit, he had great fun every time a speller would ask: “Could I hear that word in a sentence, please?” The script has some hysterical answers, to which Lyons often added his own. The role gives opportunities for some adlibbing, and Brad enjoyed each and every opening. In fact, my friends agreed that his being so familiar to this audience almost made him appear like a “plant”; but it was great to see him around TLP again.

Act I is much more tightly written than the second. Act II becomes a good deal looser and can get a bit wild. Unfortunately, it opens with Chip, who had been eliminated for a misspelled word at the end of Act I, returning to explain to the audience why he had become so flustered and what caused him to misspell. He does this in his song: “Chip’s Lament: My Unfortunate Erection!” The number can be very funny if delivered with care, like a spoof on a real lament (which is: “…an expression of regret, sorrow or grief”); but here it became a sort of rant, a bit too wild and raucous.

However, the chaotic fun of the show was restored and built to an orderly finale. This is a full evening of fun and laughter. Don’t miss it! It plays through this Sunday, Aug. 22. For reservations, call (815) 244-2035, or go to timberlakeplayhouse.org.

Season note

TLP has announced a season of five…FIVE…musicals and two plays for 2011:

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard; the new musical Flight of the Lawnchair Man; Neil Simon and Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity; a new farce, Red Herring; a family musical, Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden; a musical based on the film The Spitfire Grill; and a seventh special show, ’Til Death Do Us Part: Late Nite Catechism 3.

Season tickets available now.

From the Aug. 18-24, 2010 issue

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