I really wish I would have kept track of all the plays I’ve seen over my lifetime, because I feel like the following statement may be inaccurate, but I’m going to say it anyways.
The current production at my theatre, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is my favourite piece of theatre I’ve seen thus far.
I realize that’s a pretty bold statement, and I promise this isn’t some sales pitch or guerrilla marketing campaign to get you to come see it. I just really, really like it, which is bizarre because I don’t like musicals (and it’s a musical).
For those of you that don’t know, “the show centers around a fictional spelling bee set in a geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley Middle School. Six quirky adolescents compete in the Bee, run by three equally-quirky grown-ups. An unusual aspect of the show is that four real audience members are invited on stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the six young characters.” (Thank you Wikipedia.) It was on Broadway and won a bunch of Tony Awards back in 2005.
Sounds like a fun show, right? But, what’s so special about it?? That, I’m not sure I can tell you… Not because I want to keep an air of mystery around it so that you will all go and see it for yourselves should the opportunity arise (and you should) but because I’m not sure I can pin-point the reason.
The audience participation is awesome – how often do ‘regular joes’ get to be on-stage in a professional theatre, in a Tony-award winning show?!? I was asked to be one of the first volunteers to work with the cast here when they were still in rehearsals. (I may have cheated a bit with the spelling of some of the words because I had prior access to the script.) Considering I have met all the actors, I was impressed with how well they all stayed in character when I was thrown in amongst them (as myself). I tried to throw them off – just a little – but alas, they don’t call them professionals for nothing.
Sidebar: It’s always a little weird when you work in a theatre and see the actors both as themselves around the building or when we all go for lunch after a matinee, and then see them as their characters. The novelty is sort of starting to wear off, but it’s still weird to see who the divas are and who are more down-to-earth people that you might actually be friends with.
The improvisation that goes along with this audience participation is also awesome. I’ve seen the first act three times, and I laugh every time because it’s always a little different. (I’ve seen the second act only twice in full, but there’s a chunk in the middle in which I am running a spotlight, so I’ve seen that 15-20 minutes a dozen times already and counting, but I don’t actually don’t mind seeing it over and over again. Plus it puts me in the good books with the bosses.) I’m a big fan of improv, and this provides a great example for me to use when I’m teaching the importance of being able to think on your feet.
The characters are mostly awesome. There are some definite stereotypes that are played up in a few of the characters that take away from its awesomeness – but this could be the director’s choice, and may not be true for all productions. You’ve got the home-schooled kid wearing a cape and a helmet, the Asian over-achiever, and the only black guy playing the ex-convict. I like the cape, but could do without the racist aspects. Otherwise, the characters feel real – they have real problems and pressures and quirks.
Fun fact: the guy that plays Mitchell Pritchett on the ABC sitcom Modern Family, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, originated the role of Leaf Coneybear (who just happens to be my favourite character – the one with the cape).
The fact there the songs actually fit into and enhance the plot is probably the most awesome-sauce thing about the play. It’s not one of those crappy, overly-commercialized musicals where they take a bunch of popular songs and write a ‘plot’ around it (*cough* Mama Mia *cough*). The songs are fun, get stuck in your head for days, and most importantly, move the story along. What a freaking concept! Also, there is one song about erections.
As an added bonus to the show – you learn the definitions and correct spellings of some pretty peculiar words that you’ve probably never heard before. (Quick, someone tell me what hasenpfeffer means!)
I know there is a lot of good theatre out there, many things I’ve yet to see. My theatre has put on some pretty incredible plays, but it’s hard to label a play about children in the holocaust (Hana’s Suitcase) or a jealousy-induced accident (The Blonde, the Brunette and Vengeful Redhead) as your favourite play. I don’t even have a favourite movie, so declaring a favourite play is a pretty big deal for me. I hope to one day see it performed by a different company to see if I still feel the same or not.