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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Eastlight Again Shines Bright with “Spelling Bee”

by Bill Liesse
Saturday, September 11, 2010

Eastlight Theatre’s current production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” hammers home what regular Central Illinois theater-goers should already know: If Chip Joyce’s name is on a project, go see that play.

The multi-talented Joyce still is walking around with a feather in his cap from last November, when his remounted “Rent” at Eastlight capped off a whirlwind visit by National Endowment of the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman.

What impressed me more about that night was not so much that famed Broadway producer Landesman said nice things; his visit was all about eating crow from the start. (His visit/tour was admirably secured and arranged by Eastlight’s Kathy Chitwood and the Peoria Arts Partners’ Suzette Boulais after Landesman effectively questioned whether the Peoria area had vibrant theater at all.) More noteworthy was the national arts press accompanying Landesman reacting with, more or less: I didn’t expect much, but that was a really good “Rent.”

Whatever your standards, feel free to expect an evening of fun from the “Spelling Bee.” This isn’t one of those musicals that tells you what a “romp” it is only to produce a few smirks with mostly corny humor. This is a true comedy that emerged out of improvisational beginnings and maintains those roots by, among other things, inviting four audience members onstage to spell a few words.

Joyce wraps this ad-lib vibe amidst a meticulously directed couple of hours that never slow down and seamlessly employ some personal touches by the graduate of Illinois State’s theater school. He puts a twist on the end of the show by using a pet device of his — film — and it works beautifully. We’ll save Joyce’s other minor deviations from Rebecca Feldman’s creation, lest they serve as spoilers.

As simple as Putnam County’s set is — the play truly is a spelling bee, beginning to end — Eastlight’s technical crew gives a sterling effort nonetheless. From the five or six times Joyce opens the back curtain to reveal the movie screen, to a strobe-light sequence to a chunk of the cast coming up the aisle to perform, all the sound and lights are spot-on. A tiny bit of microphone static, courtesy of one “speller” making a balloon animal, is the lone miniature hiccup the audience is asked to endure.

Now, the show itself.

Joyce taps his co-star from last season’s terrific “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at Peoria Players, Mike Reams, to lend his ample comedic gifts to the role of Douglas Panch. The vice principal is the one in charge of giving the words, and I’d challenge you to not laugh out loud at any of the lines Reams delivers when the spellers ask for a word to be used in a sentence.

Sitting alongside at the judges’ table is another familiar name, Katie McLuckie, as Rona Lisa Peretti, a former spelling champ who tells us she lives for this kind of thing. McLuckie regales us with one of the area’s truly great singing voices between a stream of anecdotes about the spellers, including the recruited audience members. Those lines consistently amuse as McLuckie exudes she’s having her most fun onstage in quite some time.

The casting of the half-dozen student spellers is magnificent, and the manner in which all of them develop and maintain their characters is top shelf.

Bethany Freitag embodies the sheer likability the writers intended for Olive Ostrovsky. Ingrid Weiman pulls off the lisp and spunk of Logan SchwartzandGrubenierre, not to mention the longing for approval of her two dads. Jarod Hazzard (as Chip Tolentino) just can’t believe the bee, his day and in fact his whole life aren’t going to his perfectly scripted plan.

Clarissa Childs plays the role you’ve seen countless times before, the wannabe perfect girl, which you’ve probably seen overdone countless times before. Instead, Childs underplays Marcy Park, offering a endearing subtlety to a girl at odds with her own “all business” persona.

The cut-up roles are Leaf Coneybear and William Barfee, and this show would really suffer if either was played in cheesy fashion. Not a problem. Joyce coaxes a flighty, eccentric performance out of Kyle Motsinger as Coneybear, again in perfect sync with his tech crew on changing lights and changing faces when Coneybear zeroes in and spells the words.

Will Loftus is brilliant as Barfee. You beg that his many idiosyncracies don’t go over the top, as in far too many Hollywood comedies, and they don’t. Loftus has it all down: the mumbling to himself, the disdain for Mr. Panch, the physical comedy of his “magic foot” routine, the insecurities of an ostracized high school nerd — and then, he outs with a magnificent set of pipes when it’s his turn for a solo. A-plus.

Also excellent is Anthony Hendricks in the tremendously conceived role of Mitch Mahoney. This is a parolee who at one point confesses to wanting to slap these weird kids around a little, but ultimately spends the bee handing out juice boxes as parting gifts to the eliminated. From his stool in the background, Hendricks offers funny reactions whenever you remember to look, and applies his velvety voice not only to Mahoney but a couple smaller roles as well.

Putnam County is hardly as memorable a work as “Rent.” You might even call it the anti-epic. But ask my wife and I the last time we had this much pure fun in a theater, and you’ll probably have to wait a long time for an answer.