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Monday, 16 May 2011 17:27

Putnam County: More Than a Bee, True Community Theatre

Written by Dennis Corcoran
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The Details

Years ago, I lived in the Middle East near a group of British expats, aircraft mechanics, who frequently staged shows with great enthusiasm. KTK's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or "the bee", reminded me of this. It is what I think community theatre was meant to be.

Let me explain. The "bee" started with a season ticket sales pitch by KTK chairman Joe McKenna. It was mildly irritating yet interesting in that all save a few in the crowd of 50 were already season ticket holders. The atmosphere -- a parish hall, loyal, enthusiastic fans, the workman-like quality of set and scene and the energy of cast and crew -- brought me back to Saudi Arabia and a community which used theatre to reinforce its identity and entertain itself. That's what I think of as community theatre. But I digress. On with the show.

For those unfamiliar with "the bee", it is a quirky musical comedy which won 2 Tony awards in 2005, including Best Book of a Musical.

It is the story of six young teens, each a stereotyped misfit, who try to gain respect and find their place in the world by competing in Putnam County's annual contest. Included in the action are two "adults", a "comfort counselor" working off his community service and four volunteer contestants from the audience, the only non-quirky characters on the stage.

The story takes place in fictitious Putnam Middle School's gym. Southampton's parish hall is a perfect venue, a gym. With the addition of a couple banners, a basketball hoop and wooden bleachers, Southampton's elevated school stage was just the right setting.

The costumes worked equally well, showing off the quirkiness of each character and, in KTK's production, almost matching to a T those in the Broadway production.

The heart of "the bee" is the acting, singing and choreography and in this KTK's production was good – not great, but good.

The cast did a solid job and some were particularly strong, notably:

Jenifer Sabbert, as the shy, soft-spoken but so-very-sweet Olive Ostrovsky; Chris Porcelli, as the painfully misfit teen with just a touch of Asperger's, William Barfee; Margaret Howard as the colorful, aggressive, suit-clad young woman, Logainne Schwartzngrubenierre; and lastly, having gone through all Catholic schools myself, someone I know well, Marcy Park, a plaid-skirted, navy blue-sweatered teen played by Alice Stanley.

While to my ear there were no individual singing standouts, when the cast sang as a company, their tone and balance were very strong.

For me the show's peak number was the "Magic Foot" featuring Porcelli, Jane Hohlstein as the bee moderator, Rona, and the company singing and dancing a sometimes-funk, sometimes Rockettes-like routine. It was thoroughly enjoyable.

Truth be told, I'm not a big fan of musicals, but from the pledge of allegiance at the outset – an unintelligible verbal stew -- to Jesus' seeming indifferent answer to Marcy's prayer, "... not the kind of thing I care very much about", there was enough good stuff to keep me entertained.

There are many challenges in such a show, much that can go wrong, but under Keaton Treece's able direction, nothing (obvious) did. The music was solidly performed under the direction of Sean Andrews and fully in sync and supportive of the singing.

Choreography was appropriate and within the skills of the "teens", some of whom, many, perhaps, are not trained or experienced dancers.

The staging was effective in spite of having a relatively large number of people in a small space at one time. Even the number "Pandemonium", which was an apt portrayal of pandemonium on a stage, worked.

Solid acting, good music, decent singing, especially on company numbers, appropriate costumes, set, lighting and venue made the bee an enjoyable evening of theatre.

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