By D. A. Blackburn
Dexter’s Encore Musical Theatre Company marked a significant milestone Thursday night — its first anniversary — and the company did so in grand form, with a near-full house and a delightful production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Since debuting off Broadway in 2005, the “Bee” has taken on a significant life, becoming one of the most frequently produced musicals of the last decade. With two Tony Awards to its credit, the show has taken audiences by storm, attracting large houses and impressive critiques in New York, San Francisco and Chicago, as well as other major theatrical hubs around the globe. A 2007 nationally touring production received much the same response, but it’s really been in the last few seasons, since establishing a firm footing in smaller professional, community and academic theaters that the “Bee’s” buzz has reached a fevered pitch.
The significant following that “Bee” has gained is a direct result of Rachel Sheinkin’s uplifting and deeply funny script — a story overflowing with quirky, unlikely but endearing heroes destined to learn some of life’s most important lessons over the course of an afternoon at the spelling bee.
For “Bee,” the Encore’s first production of the calendar year, a fine cast has been assembled to bring these characters to life. The company has even contracted two performers from the “Bee’s” national tour cast, Jeffrey James Binney and Christine Bunuan (the latter also starred in the Chicago production) to compliment an ensemble of talented locals.
From an acting standpoint, Westland’s Evan Williams, Ann Arbor’s Elizabeth Jaffe and Binney (New York) provide the most engaging performances in the Encore’s production. They are also the performers with the most over-the-top misfit characters — roles that pose unique demands for actors including a large dose of physical comedy and some very delicate vocal delivery in the form of extremely pronounced lisps and puberty-esque squeakiness. In all three cases, these performers excel, maintaining these qualities consistently throughout the production’s music and rapid dialogue.
As Vice Principal Panch, Dexter’s own Tobin Hissong, too, proves an excellent asset to the Encore’s production, riffing with sharply funny, timely and locally relevant word usages for the contestants to digest (these are unique to every production of the “Bee”). Hissong’s strong vocal projection and intentionally stiff demeanor also hit a perfect mark for the school administrator turned bee moderator.
William Finn’s music and lyrics are light and fun. And at this end of the performance spectrum, the Encore’s cast also provides a few standouts. Bunuan’s polished delivery is energetic and fun in “I Speak Six Languages.” Thalia Schramm’s performance is more subdued, but is musically more satisfying, with a syrupy sweet tone and a slight spinning trill of natural vibrato. Among the show’s men, it’s the Encore’s own Steve DeBruyne who earns the highest marks vocally. His fun and mildly racy “Chip’s Lament” is easily one of the show’s finest moments, but it’s his turn as Olive’s Father in “The I Love You Song” that best showcases his vocal talents.
Daniel Cooney’s stage direction gives the work a good pace, and brings out the finely nuanced quirks that make “Bee’s” characters such a delight. And it also works in locked step with Barbara F. Cullen’s thoughtful, high-energy choreography.
In the design disciplines, the Encore’s “Bee” is less even, and less fulfilling. Colleen Meyer’s costumes are an absolute delight, accenting characters with imaginative and clever touches. But Toni Auletti’s sets fall a bit short for the show – simple and efficient, but far less inspired than Meyer’s work. And further down the scale lies Daniel Fowler’s lighting, which sets the work in tones too extreme for the work’s rather mundane setting. Furthering the issue is an odd use of strobe and spot during the song “Pandemonium,” which is at once very distracting, but not chaotic enough to match the statement of Finn’s lyrics.
These, however, seem like fairly minor miscues when juxtaposed against this exceedingly witty script, and raucously funny cast of characters – all of whom know how to spell and define “excellent theater.”
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’
The Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday- Sunday through Feb. 21. $28. 734-268-6200. http://theencoretheatre.org