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Theater Notes: Everyone wins at the ‘Spelling Bee’

By Staff | Jan 19, 2011

I’m an unabashed cheerleader for the Strauss Theater’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” It as an evening that satisfied me in a deep, deep way. I think it deserves full houses all the way till it closes Feb. 12.

Now, some of you have seen it before. I had, in Hartford, at the Bushnell, performed by a road company with great talent. But, it didn’t move me. I truly wasn’t looking forward to this one on Sanibel.

I was I wrong. ‘Know why?

I put a lot of blame for the wonder, the magic, the utter delight all of us in the audience found at the Strauss right smack on the director’s shoulders. Jason Loete’s work is top-flight and brilliant.

Loete is head of Theater Arts at Cypress Lake High School Center for the Arts. He has the gift. He showed that gift over at Cypress Lake with his direction of “Sweet Charity” which I argue would have made Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse envious. Loete took “Sweet Charity” to a Florida State Thespian Festival Mainstage Selection. That’s no small feat.

Well, what he’s woven into “The Spelling Bee” is that theater savvy — the craft, the shrewd decisions about not what will just “sell,” but what will move the audience in some profound ways. Then, he assembles a cast that knocked us silly with their talent. They can sing, they can dance, they can act. Not a dull or bum performance in the entire cast. They clearly were having such fun being in this show playing off each other, and the characters they developed were unique, witty, wise and playful, all of which left me dazzled, and I was not alone.

The plot is a natural. Regional winners assembled for the elimination of all but one champion. In the process, we learn about parents who push, about peers who bully, about adults who don’t understand the toll it takes to win, or the pain when you lose. We really came to care about these kids. I particularly got a kick out of Adam Jones’ deft and witty portrayal of Leaf Coneybear who, up until this Spelling Bee, had considered himself not to be very smart.

Hats off, too, for the incredible Rachael Endrizzi. (Can any of us who saw her explode with her two characters in “Almost, Maine,” forget her?) Here she creates a portrait, Logainne Schwartzand-Crubenierre, that in less artful hands could be played for stereotyped gags. Her character is a kid at a Spelling Bee, but English is her second language. We celebrate her courage coming through the handicap; we believe her and when she is furious and competitive, we believe that, too. She is, after all, Rachael Endrizzi.

The musical numbers were sung beautifully. The ensemble truly jelled and the raucous spirit shook the rafters. I cite one beautiful production number led by the glorious voice of Anne Chamberlain who played Olive Ostrovsky and who sang to her absent mother, played by Annie Freres — another singing voice to be reckoned with — and answered by Brandon Michael Fleming who played her father with the richest male voice in the play. I could go back and see the show three more times, for this scene alone.

A quick disclaimer. There is some sexual content, a trifle bit of strong language, and yet none of it over the top. Today’s youth have probably seen stuff as playfully raunchy as this before, unless they don’t have any televisions in their houses.

I urge you to get tickets quickly. I really predict full houses, as it was the night I went, for the length of the run. Call the box office at 472-6862 or check out the website at www.BIGARTS.org. I’m still glowing from the delight I got from seeing The “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at The Strauss Theater. Don’t miss it.