Festival 56 kicks off its second decade and the 2014 season with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” This show is fun, clever, sarcastic and touching — everything you might be looking for in an opening show for the Festival season.
When we are first introduced to the quirky cast of characters, it is difficult to figure out who to root for, but as they show their vulnerabilities, fears and hopes, it becomes hard to root against any of them.
The cast performs with the energy and enthusiasm you might expect of Festival 56 actors/actresses, but the level of vocal talent surpassed my expectations. It does show the level of talent that Festival 56 attracts. When the cast reached the first big number “Pandemonium,” they showed they are not only talented individuals, but a cohesive ensemble as well. It is important in a single set show for the director to keep the staging interesting; if not, this show could easily fall into stale patterns. But Director Jimmy Calitri kept the play moving and employed some clever staging which kept that from happening.
A unique bit of fun in this production included the interaction between the cast and the audience including bringing some audience members on stage. “Magic Foot” is a clever bit of tug-of-war as the actors pull the “guests” around the stage. This kind of interaction does make it tough on the actors to stay in character, and it forces the audience to not take this bombastic show too seriously.
On the serious side, the gorgeous voice of Sarah Smith makes me very excited to see “Into the Woods” in which she will portray the Witch character. A highlight of this show, and my personal favorite moment, is the touching “I Love You Song” with Sarah, Tom Rusterholz and Amanda Spears. Three beautiful voices telling us honestly how they feel. They took us out of the silliness and showed us the heart of the play.
The quirky characters required a full commitment from all of the actors, and every one of them came through. Drew Arnold as Barfee took that commitment to the next level. He is an intriguing actor worthy of your attention. But I look forward to seeing the range all of these actors will need to display in the multiple show Summer Stock format.
This show sets a fast pace for a marathon of fantastic theater, and it looks like we are going to need to fasten our seatbelts. It’s going to be quite a ride. Don’t miss “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which continues playing through June 28 at the Grace Performing Arts Center.
Editor’s note: Watch the BCR for continuing reviews of all the Festival 56 productions.