The JU College of Fine Arts presented “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical comedy, on stage at the Swisher Theatre during October 24-26, 2014. This innovative musical has remained popular since it was nominated for six Tony Awards in 2005 and garnered two, for Best Book of a Musical and Best Actor. No doubt it will be a show with a long life, as spelling bee competitions remain so popular that they are featured on ESPN, the sports network.
The story is that of a small town spelling bee, featuring a cast of eccentric characters. The setting and story are pure fiction and lots of fun. If you are not familiar with the musical and missed Jacksonville University’s fine performance, the Alhambra has it on next year’s schedule.
JU’s production used a gymnasium setting, cleverly designed by Brandon Lettow to imply it was much more spacious than it really was. Russ Behrens, Lighting Designer, added some terrific lighting effects. We were especially impressed with the large cards with changing colors that rimmed the stage and featured unusual words and their definitions.
The event was run by Rona Lisa Peretti (Lexi Inks), the poised singing chairperson of the event and a past winner of the Bee. Zach Polendo was Mr. Panch, the Vice Principal whose duties included pronouncing the word to be spelled for the current contestant, providing a definition, and using the word in a sentence. The audience responded to his flippant remarks and sarcastic demeanor with frequent laughter.
Another non-speller was Jamil Abdur-Rahman as Mitch Mahoney, a former convict doing mandatory community service while on probation. He acted as a sergeant- at-arms, escorting the failed contestants off the stage and presenting them with a bottle of juice as a runner-up prize.
There were five contestants, who displayed a wide range of skills and temperaments. Marcy Park (Victoria Miller) is extremely confident and self-reliant, and speaks six languages. Olive Ostrovsky (Rachel Romo) is very insecure, has no family or friends present, and doesn’t have money for the entrance fee. We saw Ms. Romo earlier this summer, in a wonderful performance as Mimi in “Rent” at Players by the Sea.
William Barfee (Harrison Breault) is a conceited speller, who uses a special attention-getting magic foot technique to write out letters on stage before articulating them to the judges. This was Mr. Breault’s debut in musical theatre at JU, but he has previously been on stage with Players by the Sea in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Rent.” Chris Robertson was Chip Tolentino, and in addition appeared as Jesus in one short scene. As Tolentino, he was the winner of last year’s contest, and wears a neat Boy Scout outfit. We have been fans of Mr. Robertson since he was on stage as one of the children in “The Sound of Music,” some years ago. Since then, he has appeared in many musicals with various community theatres.Michaela Wright played Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, whose last name combines the names of her two gay fathers. Matthew Robertson plays Leaf Coneybear, a character as unusual as his name, who makes his own unconventional clothes.
One of the fun portions of the musical features guest spellers chosen from the audience. This allows room for some serious ad-libbing, as was the case in this show. The four audience participants were Nick Kirby, James Baker, Shirley Sacks, and Brandon Paris (and we hope we have the names correct, as they were not, of course, listed in the program). Mrs. Sacks, well-known local actress and director, provided many laughs as she handled the tough word “Mexican.” Each of the volunteer spellers eventually missed a word, received a bottle of juice, and was escorted away.Curtis Williams not only came up with the colorful and clever costumes but was also the Choreographer. We especially liked the full cast magic foot dance and the hilarious slow motion dance.
We have seen this show several times and continue to think the best song is “I Love You,” although the others are catchy.Kimberly Beasley as Musical Director was the conductor and played the piano while leading the orchestra tucked away under the stage. The orchestra members were: Evan Peterson( Percussion), Kimberly Yorio (Winds), Jackson Merrill (Synthesizer), and Brendan Kohler (Cello). They played superbly. Ms. Beasley as a vocal professor works with a number of students developing their singing skills.
Jay Ivey as the Executive Producer/Director marks this as the 64th production in his varied career as a singer, director, music director, and accompanist. The musical was as polished and professional a production as we have seen in any theatrical setting. As critics, we appreciate that Mr. Ivey shares his considerable talents with the community; this past summer, he was the Musical Director for the acclaimed production of “Rent” at Players by the Sea.
Stage managing this delightful musical was Ashley Jones, with assistance from Haley Cox and Wayne Woodson. Others on the creative team included Victoria Miller as Dance Captain, and Nioska Alejandra Nunez as Graphic Designer.
Between Terry Hall and the Swisher Theatre, Jacksonville University offers a number of interesting and entertaining performances throughout the school year. Tickets are very reasonably priced. And speaking as critics who have attended many of their performances, we can attest that their musicals are always fabulous and meticulously produced. See arts.ju.edu for additional information about upcoming events.