ALHAMBRA THEATRE AND DINING REVIEW
There is lots of fun and many laughs with “Spelling Bee,” the Alhambra’s latest musical, which was nominated for six Tony Awards in 2005 and winner of two. The hilarious story is that of a fictional spelling bee set in the also fictional Putman County somewhere in America. Six unusual spellers compete for the title that will allow them to advance to the next level and hopefully eventually to the national finals in our nation’s capitol.
The musical, by Rachel Sheinkin and Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn, is of course based on the actual spelling bee competition that airs yearly on ESPN to a large audience in prime time.
The talented and colorful (and very, very, funny) spellers are Mark Vincent Mansilungan (Chip Tolentino), Jessica Booth (Longainne Schwartzandgrubenierre), Clay Cartland (Leaf Coneybear), Austin Palmer (William Barfée), Marcy Park (Sue-Yenn Ng), and Olive Ostrovsky (Katie Nettle). The spelling bee is run by three equally hilarious adults: Kelly Atkins (Rona Lisa Peretti), Kevin Covert (Douglas Panch), and James Webb (Mitch Mahoney).
If four of those names are familiar, it is because they are Alhambra veterans of previous shows. Kelly Adkins, who has been in many musicals over the years, is now married to Matt Morgan and has returned to the stage after a matrimony break. Jessica Booth, who practically grew up on the Alhambra stage, now makes her home in New York City, and is back from a recent show at the Actor’s Playhouse in Miami. Katie Nettle has five Alhambra shows to her credit and also lives in Jacksonville; she is married to Resident Stage Manager Jason Nettle. Alhambra regulars will remember James Webb from his roles as Curtis in “Dreamgirls” and earlier as Joe in “Showboat.”
If you have ever watched a real spelling bee on television, you know they are rather serious, but not so in this show, which is staged to make you laugh, long and hard, at the spellers searching for the right letters. And when the spellers ask for a definition and a sentence using the word they’ve been given, Mr. Panch comes up with sidesplitting examples.
One of the highlights of the show is the participation by four members of the audience, selected before the show as guest spellers. This proved to be one of the funniest segments, with the guests eventually being given very difficult words, resulting in misspellings. We were impressed by Kelly Adkins as Mrs. Peretti, the spelling bee hostess and her very funny ad libs about the backgrounds of the guests.
The play is a musical with sixteen songs, which were both charming and comical, and especially written to fit the singer’s personality. All the voices were excellent, but that is of course one of the trademarks of a Todd Booth Directed musical. We, along with the rest of the audience, were especially impressed with the solo by James Webb as Mitch, an ex-convict who serves as a sergeant-at-arms and comfort counselor, and passes out consolation prizes (a small bottle of apple juice) for contestants who have been eliminated.
Who was the funniest speller? We are sure you will have your favorite by the end of the evening. It may be Miss SchwartzandGrubenierre, whose last name combines the names of her two gay fathers, or Mr. Coneybear, who makes his own unconventional clothing.
The colorful set, designed by David Dionne, is a small gymnasium with a revolving bright yellow set of bleachers in center stage. The Costume Crew’s creations are fashioned to match the personalities of the spellers and are a delight to see.
The Production Staff included James Kinney (Choreographer), Cathy Murphy Giddens (Musical Director), Jason Nettle (Stage Manager), Jessica Booth (Dance Captain), Justin Rauckhorst (Lighting Designer), and Jim Jackson (Sound Designer).
If you asked Executive Chef DeJuan Roy how to spell the ingredients for a fine meal, he would probably pass and cook one for you instead. There are four fine entrees for this show, and the most popular on opening night was his famous Prime Rib with Texas Potatoes. To learn the other choices, check out the Alhambra website at alhambrajax.com.
For an evening or afternoon of entertaining and lively fun, don’t miss seeing “The 25th Annual Putnam County Selling Bee” at the Alhambra Theatre, 12000 Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville, Florida. Call 904-641-1212 for additional information and reservations.