Spelling Bee in Ojai Lively and Fresh
by Shirley Lorraine
How good is your spelling? Could you compete with the “kids” in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee now onstage at the Ojai Arts Center Theater? A winner of both a Tony and Drama Desk award for Best Book, this charmingly engaging musical will delight all ages.
Director Gai Jones has assembled a fully capable cast and embellished the show with additional background characters, giving many an opportunity to participate in this summer musical. In addition, four audience members are asked to volunteer each performance as contestants, resulting in an ever-changing footprint for some creative improvisation. The cast all handle the variables quite well.
The scene is a junior high gymnasium complete with mascot notes and posters. As each contestant trickles in to sit on the bleachers, the audience glimpses their unique personalities. Each has familiar and recognizable traits. There is the nerd, the smart one, the Boy Scout, the over-achiever, the second runner up who participates by default, and the confused tween with two daddies.
Standout characterizations are given by all six of the contestants – Jake Ayers, Hayley Silvers, Steven Silvers, Hayden Miller, Ava Burge and Arden Smith. Additional major contributors are Suzy
Thatcher, Nelson Fox and Laura Ring all turning in solid performances.
Be ready to listen – the action moves quickly and the keyboard accompaniment by Greg Spaulding can at times overwhelm the voices. The well written book clearly is deserving of its awards and produces numerous laughs. The musical score, although pleasant, is less memorable.
The first act is where most of the real action is, while the second bogs down some in the backstories. Each character is given the platform to tell their story in song with varying results. Delivery quality is uneven in both tone and clarity. A highlight was Denise Heller’s cameo as Olive’s mom. All sing with heartfelt enthusiasm throughout.
While I consistently applaud the Ojai Art Center Theater for the excellent community inclusion they always bring to their productions, I have one serious request. Throughout the production Friday evening, the tech crew at the back of the house carried on conversations that were quite distracting to my guest and me. A loud audience member would be shushed or escorted out of the theater for such behavior. Between trying to filter that out and hear over the keyboard, I, at least, had a hard time hearing the lyrics. Perhaps others were not bothered, but I would caution the crew to remember that once the show opens, the audience is the customer. Tech problems should not be ironed out while paid patrons are in the theater.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a fun, funny and lively musical filled with vivid characters and well worth catching. Sit toward the front.
Ojai Art Center Theater, 113 S. Montgomery Street, (805) 640-8797 www.OjaiACT.org
All seats $18, Seniors/Students/Art Center Members $15 Fridays and Saturdays 7:30 p.m., Sundays 2:00 p.m. through June 4. NOTE summertime early curtain time.