Sunday, October 9, 2011

Transforming The BEE By Beverly Creasey

 I’ve always thought the William Finn/Rachel Sheinkin musical THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE was lightweight at best. The Broadway tour didn’t persuade me otherwise. Nor did the countless revivals I’ve reviewed. Ugh.

BUT DAWN BREAKS. I now see the light. THE 25th ANNUAL you-know-what is a darned good musical…and all because I saw the Next Door Center for the Arts’ luminous production (which will be hop, skipping and jumping through Oct. 22nd.) DO NOT MISS OUT!

Every song, every turn of plot, every flashback works! The Next Door BEE casts a (dare I say) spell of sweetness and has a depth of emotion I didn’t know was there. Director James Tallach layers the script with ingenious (but never over the top) comic finesse. His BEE doesn’t rely on the broad characterizations you usually see. (If you are unfamiliar with the piece, grown actors portray the young spellers.) The contestants in Tallach’s BEE are so completely vulnerable, you can’t keep yourself from feeling genuine affection and disappointment when one by one they’re eliminated from the competition.

Shall I mention the audience volunteers? (I really disliked that part of the show in the past.) I don’t know how they managed it at Next Door, but now it’s delightful. We couldn’t get enough of the poor gentleman, such a good sport, who hung in there and tried his best to keep up with the actors.

Why does it all work? The joy on stage is infectious. From Kendra Alati’s tour de force as the BEE hostess with the mostest to Ronny Pompeo’s surprisingly sympathetic turn as a nasal drip, from Keil Coit’s adorably wacky misfit to Sarajane Mullins’ sad, shy introvert to Mike Levesque’s hilarious comfort counselor, each and every character shines. Music director Brendan Kenney gets a big sound from the three piece orchestra and lovely singing all around.

Who wouldn’t love a show where Kendall Hodder as the stodgy vice principal invokes Freddie Mercury to illustrate a word! Who knew? Well, I do now!