The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
This weekend’s premiere of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is the type of hipster show rarely produced on Maui. Created through a series of partially improvised workshops, “Spelling Bee” is a musical-comedy about teen outcasts and deeply flawed adults as they navigate through the cut-throat spelling bee world.
ProArts Playhouse Managing Director Jonathan Lehman, who directs “Spelling Bee,” has presented two bold, adult-themed productions in the last three months. He shared his thoughts on why ProArts chose the show: “I saw it in San Francisco in 2006 – twice – loved it both times. I knew I would one day produce or direct the show at ProArts, which was just starting up then. It always takes time to find great shows that will fit into our space. ‘Spelling Bee’ had the perfect cast size, easy technical requirements and a great pool of willing talent on Maui to fill the nine roles. And, probably most importantly, our audience base would love it because it was something new and different.”
Part of what lifted “Spelling Bee” from off-Broadway to a Tony Award-winning hit, is that bawdiness aside, the show evolves into a sweet love story and manifesto for all the puberty-challenged geeks who go on to greatness. “This show is not your ordinary Broadway musical. The authors saw the spelling bee as a kind of metaphor for the human experience- sometimes you get the easy words and sometimes you don’t. What I think people like best about ‘Spelling Bee’ is how – in the midst of the music and laughter – it finds a way to take us all back to those terrible and wonderful middle-school years. The years where we really began the journey of discovering who we are – and who are friends were. The time when we learned that it’s OK to be different – or not, and when we learned that it’s OK to lose – or to win.”
Quirky character traits range from an “official word reader,” Douglas Patch (Gary Shin-Leavitt), who has been barred for five years while undergoing psychiatric treatment; an ex-con “comfort counselor,” Mitch Mahoney (Scott Smith), court-ordered to be there; an “over-achieving Asian,” Marcy Park (Ashlyn-Jade Aniban), who attends Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrow Middle School and is not allowed to cry; and Leaf Coneybear (Jeff Brackett), the hippie kid whose siblings include Pinecone, Landscape and Raisin.
I asked Lehman if he had any personal memories of being one of the kids who was a little different. “In this show, everyone’s special interest is spelling and language. This sets them apart from the jocks and the cheerleaders. My mom wouldn’t let me take drama classes in middle school. Instead, I was in the choir. Even throughout high school, I was the choir boy. I just had no interest in organized sports or cheerleading. I was allowed to participate in drama productions, but never got to take the class. It all worked out. Drama and music combined, and I was hooked for life.”
“Spelling Bee,” its story, music and off-beat humor, is the type of irreverent theater that is immensely popular in large cities with ground-breaking comedy production houses like Second City, Chicago City Limits, Improv Olympic and Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre. That said, “Spelling Bee” does contain some adult material and language. However, if you’ve been longing for urban, edgy theater, you won’t want to miss this one. “Without a couple of mild expletives, all as part of song lyrics, ‘Spelling Bee’ could play in prime time,” said Lehman. “One character laments the fact that puberty has hit ‘hard’ at an inopportune moment in a very funny song. It is totally relatable to any male over 12 years old. I have no concerns with our base audience. They loved the foul mouthed dog in ‘Sylvia’ and the overly amorous seniors in ‘Bermuda Avenue Triangle.’ This show is tame in comparison.”
Another popular element to this show is that audience members are recruited to appear onstage and participate in the bee itself. Lehman explained how the novelty works. “At each performance, volunteers from the audience are recruited to be part of the show. A quick interview and some easy instructions and they will be ready to spell. They get a chance to show off their spelling skills and are also included in the stage action, with the help of the cast.”
With past musicals like “Urinetown” and “Ruthless!,” ProArts has established itself as a risk-taking company, introducing Maui to several alternative productions over the last six years. “We try to do shows that the other local groups would not choose,” said Lehman. “There are two risks in producing theatre: Will the audience like it? Will it sell tickets? Most of the time we have won in both cases.” Lehman has put the challenge upon Maui theatergoers, as well as all those people who say there is nothing new to do on Maui. Ready or not, ProArts is bringing irreverent big-city theater to Kihei, tailor-made for the under-40 crowd.
ProArts presents the Maui premiere of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” with music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman, directed by Jonathan Lehman, and under the musical direction of Kim Vetterli. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays (no performance this Sunday), opening tonight and continuing through Dec. 22, then picking up from Jan. 3 to 12 at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Tickets are $25; kamaaina discounts for Hawaii residents are scheduled Saturday and Dec. 19 and Jan. 9. Call 463-6550.
Also this week
Maui OnStage’s “The Story of Orange” captivated children of all ages last weekend, with its superbly crafted puppets, colorful costumes, delightful tunes, a cast of 26 children and special guest star Dale Button. “Orange,” by Vernise Pelzel and directed by Ricky Jones, is the musical tale of a misunderstood, shunned orange zebra. Don’t miss the final performance at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. General admission tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for children. For tickets or more details, call 242-6969 or purchase reserved seats online at www.mauionstage.com.
Seabury Hall Performing Arts will present “The 23rd Annual Christmas Party/Performing Arts Concert,” directed by David Ward and featuring every level of Seabury’s dance programs. For two nights only, celebrate the performing arts, enjoy complimentary desserts and beverages, and watch original dance choreography, plus performances by the music and drama departments. Guest artist kumu Kahulu Maluo presents a high-energy hula with pu’ili (split bamboo sticks). Ward will stage Spanish-influenced dance, “The Village,” with music by Ottmar Liebert and the Gypsy Kings. Andre Morissette and the Level C dancers will offer a tribute to Ray Charles, and Vanessa Cerrito will choreograph a new ballet for her advanced students to Mozart’s “Requiem,” as well as a fresh dance for the Level B dancers set to David Bowie’s iconic, “Let’s Dance.” Additional performances will include excerpts from “Hamlet” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Demand for seats runs high for this one-weekend-only affair, so reservations are a must. Performances are at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the A’ali’ikuhonua Creative Arts Center at Seabury Hall in Makawao. Tickets are $17. For details or to purchase tickets, call 573-1257 or visit www.seaburyhall.org.
MOS’ “Scrooge – the Musical” continues through this weekend. Final performances are7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Historic Iao Theater. Reserved seats range from $17 to $28. For tickets or more information, call 242-6969 or purchase reserved seats online at www.mauionstage.com.