Would it be fair to compare the Atlantis version with the 2007 BlueRep one?
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM County Spelling Bee” is a rather unwieldy title for a Broadway musical, though one finds out soon enough that it is entirely apropos for a show that finds joyous comic possibilities in Roman letters thrown together to form kilometric-sounding words--the stranger, the better. (omphaloskepsis, anyone? How about trichotillomania?)
The quirkiness isn’t limited to this show’s vocabulary. Each of the six misfits who populate the musical’s putative spelling contest (nine, if you include the extra-perky emcee, the pill-popping spelling master and the ex-con-counselor) can very well define idiosyncrasy with clinical precision.
“‘Survivor’ for nerds” was, in fact, how the director James Lapine once described the William Finn-Rachel Sheinkin musical he first mounted Off-Broadway and successfully shepherded to Tony honors in 2005. The nerds in question, rest assured, are for the most part only endearing and never off-putting.
“Spelling Bee’s” eccentric charms are now on display at RCBC Theater in Makati, where Atlantis Productions has mounted it under Bobby Garcia’s savvy direction. The show runs until April 4.
Two local shows
For the record, there have been two local “Spelling Bees”--this one, and an amateur production directed by Andrei Pamintuan for Ateneo Blue Repertory in June 2007, featuring a cast of all-student actors.
The exception was Felix Rivera, who stepped in at one point from his perch as musical coach to play the part of Vice Principal Douglas Panch, the spelling master. Rivera now plays Chip Tolentino, the reigning champion and Boy Scout with a pronounced case of raging hormones, in the Atlantis musical.
Would it be fair to compare the two versions? One was, after all, a bare-bones campus production, while the other is a professionally mounted show with veteran stars (Cathy Azanza-Dy, Pheona Baranda, Rycharde Everley, Johann Dela Fuente, Carla Guevara-Laforteza, Noel Rayos, Thea Tadiar, Joel Trinidad and Rivera) and a director with a distinguished resume.
Given the cramped venue where BlueRep’s “Spelling Bee” was held (the 100-seater Gonzaga Fine Arts Theater), its virtually unknown roster of performers and all-too-brief run under the media radar, it’s not farfetched to declare it as one of the least-watched musicals of 2007.
We saw that show once and the Atlantis version twice. We’re constrained to report that the pros at RCBC Theater, while expert actors overall, can learn a thing or two from their student counterparts in the matter of, in theater critic Charles Isherwood’s words, “the usually ghastly conceit of adult actors playing kids.”
The Ateneo college kids, it can be conceded, enjoyed the existential advantage of being closer to the ages of the tween characters they portrayed. Perhaps the sweaty, desperate spelling tests of classrooms past were still seared fresh on their minds; perhaps the stress of time-bound competition struck greater urgency in young actors still ruled--like spelling contestants--by the bell.
Whatever the reason, BlueRep’s “Spelling Bee,” technically sparse and no-frills as it was, oddly intruded on the mind as we watched the bright, sleek, altogether lively version Garcia has mounted.
That static stems from a shortage--subtle, but there it is--of something the Ateneo staging had otherwise offered in copious doses: guilelessness, purity--the absence of any distancing self-consciousness.
Take Everley. This teddy bear of an actor is afire in the juicy part of the prickly schlub William Barfee, which is well-served by his big voice and fine comic timing. As he goes through his paces, however, Everley never sinks into character, his outsize showman’s flair forever peeking through the artificial accumulation of tics and gestures he deploys with obvious deliberateness.
This is, in short, a performance--striking in volume and command of space, but lacking the spontaneity of fine-grained characterization.
Everley’s broad strokes--can you spell h-a-m-m-y?--wouldn’t be in such high relief if his co-actors didn’t go the opposite--more low-key, naturalistic--manner.
Even as they tackle equally freakish characters, the three girls--Baranda (in a welcome return to the local stage after her Hong Kong Disneyland stint) as the lisp-afflicted, pigtails-wearing Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (her early take on the word strabismus is a hoot), Tadiar as the frighteningly gifted Marcy Park, and Guevara-Laforteza as the wallflower Olive Ostrovsky--offer grounded portrayals that emphasize character over surface quirks.
Guevara-Laforteza’s number, “The I Love You Song,” sung with Rayos and Azanza-Dy doubling as her absent parents, is hauntingly delivered. A lament on sparse parental love cleverly set off against the word Olive has to spell (chimerical), its peak three-part harmony lends the show a grown-up mournful moment, even with Rayos’ top notes tending to go wayward.
Dela Fuente plays a nimble if cutesy hand with his Leaf Coneybear character, while Rivera, an actor of glowing leading-man chops as was showcased in Atlantis’ previous “Avenue Q,” seems pinched, tamped down as Chip Tolentino. He, too, isn’t quite convincing as a straitlaced kid wrestling with runaway puberty.
What the fresh-faced Ateneo actors brought to these parts, if memory serves us right, was a raw blend of exultant energy and fancy-free acting that made the proceedings goofier, more madcap and farcical. Their singing, especially Laura Cabochan’s as the emcee Rona Lisa Peretti, wasn’t middling, either.
Seeing Atlantis’ “Spelling Bee” on its own offers brisk pleasures; seeing it side by side with the memory of another show that did its business better, at least in one key respect, tempers that pleasure, frames it in perspective. That is, perhaps, the curse that promiscuous theatergoers like us must deal with.
This “Spelling Bee” does scale stylish comic heights with its improvised spiels introducing guest star spellers.
The lovely Agot Isidro, for instance, came onstage clad in fearsome stilettos. Whereupon Azanza-Dy announced: “Ms Isidro believes in the saying ‘The higher the heels, the better the speller.’”
The venerable actor-director Leo Rialp, for his part, was asked to spell elderly. When he gamely requested its use in a sentence, the reliably funny Trinidad tossed out this helpful tidbit: “The gentleman thought that by wearing jeans and stripes, he wouldn’t look elderly. He was wrong.”
Rialp was dressed in jeans and stripes. He got the word right, to cheers from the crowd.
For tickets to Atlantis Productions’ “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” call 8927078, 8401187 or 8919999. Visit atlantisproductionsinc.com