See the BEE

Rep Spelling BeeF-U-N is all the spelling you need to know to go see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This musical comedy with heart and smarts is running now through November 8 at Arkansas Repertory Theatre.

A 2005 Tony winner for Best Book of a Musical, Spelling Bee (as it shall hereafter be abbreviated) explores the twists and turns of both the eponymous academic competition and the struggle known as adolescence. While William Finn’s score may not be as strong as some of his other shows, it is a mixture of peppy and heart-felt songs that illuminate the chaos and character of each competitor.

There are six main competitors in the Bee. Each of the adult actors playing these juvenile spellers does a masterful job of balancing the demands of the roles. They must portray youngsters, without it becoming a parody. Ethan Paulini creates yet another endearingly offbeat character at the Rep as Leaf Coneybear. Tessa Faye’s Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre shifts seamlessly between exuberance and frustration. Laura Dadap aptly showcases her many talents as overachiever Marcy Park.

As Chip Tolentino, Tommy Martinez is so clean-cut and charming that his character’s unfortunate physical condition is endearing and not creepy. Conly Basham brings warmth, pathos, and heart to the role of Olive Ostrovsky, which keeps the character from straying into the realm of the pitiful or maudlin. As William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay, except by everyone else on stage), Patrick Halley embraces the profound oddities and quirks in the character without making him grotesque.

Playing the adults are the warm Andi Watson as a former spelling bee champion intent on reliving her glory days, the officiously hilarious Scott McLean Harrison as a frustrated and frustrating Assistant Principal, and Correy West as a community service grief counselor. Watson and Harrison are kept on their toes throughout the show as they must interact with the guest spellers from the audience.

This is no cookie-cutter production of Spelling Bee. Director Nicole Capri has crafted a production that plays to the unique strengths of each of the actors. She keeps the show moving at a good pace, while allowing it to slow down enough for the audience and actors to enjoy the moments of bliss and melancholy. Capri obviously created a rehearsal environment encouraging the actors to take risks and to have fun.

Musical Director Mark Binns again excels in serving the score, singers and the audience. Mike Nichols’ set recreates a school gymnasium down to the ropes dangling from a ceiling. Shelly Hall’s costumes capture the personalities of each character in a fresh way. Dan Kimble’s lighting and Allan Branson’s sound design are vital to reflecting the different moods and moments as the story sometimes shifts to different planes of consciousness. Lynda J. Kwallek’s props ensure the show has a lived-in look.

While the show may have a message about the value of every person, it is not a “MESSAGE” show. It is intended to be fun. The Arkansas Rep production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee gets the gold cup for providing an enjoyable, entertaining, and enlightening outing at the theatre.

Final week to see DEATH OF A SALESMAN at Ark Rep

Salesman (1)This is the final week to see the much-praised production of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer, Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle winning Death of a Salesman at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.  The production runs through May 12.

Death of a Salesman has been hailed as the greatest American play.  The central character, Willy Loman, has been compared to heroes in Aristotlean proportions.

But at the heart of all the hype is family bound by love and crushed by disappointments as they struggle to make sense of life.  Though set in the post World War II era, these themes resonate today.

Arkansas Rep Producing Artistic Director Robert Hupp is directing this production.  He has assembled a powerhouse cast led by Robert Walden as Willy Loman.  In her Arkansas Rep debut, Broadway vet Carolyn Mignini plays Linda Loman, his wife.  Their two sons are played by Avery Clark and Craig Maravich.  Clark has quickly become a Rep audience favorite through his performances in Hamlet, The 39 Steps and Henry V.  Maravich is making his Rep debut.

Others in the cast are Broadway vet William Metzo, Arkansas Rep vets Jay E. Raphael and Joe Menino, and Christopher Ryan and Kevin Sebastian, Stephanie Gunderman , Rachael Small and Andi Watson.

The design team includes Mike Nichols (sets), Rafael Colon Castanera (costumes), Allan Branson (sound), Lynda J. Kwallek (props) and Kenton Yeager (lighting).  Hupp commissioned a new recording of Alex North’s iconic score for this production.

The show plays at 7pm on Wednesday and Thursday, 8pm on Friday and Saturday, and 2pm and 7pm on Sunday.  For more on the production see this review.

Sold on SALESMAN

Salesman (1)Death of a Salesman has been hailed as the best American play. Ever. So the stakes are high for any production.

For the greatest American play, director Robert Hupp has assembled arguably the strongest cast ever on stage at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. They offer a master class in acting that is both explosive and restrained, both naturalistic and ethereal.

From the Loman family which dominates the stage throughout the play to the assorted other characters who drift in and out, these actors form a seamless unit to tell Arthur Miller’s story of dreams and desperation.

Robert Walden’s Willy Loman is rumpled, careworn and creased. His presence shows the wear and tear of every mile he has driven and every sales visit he has made. Walden’s Loman evokes sympathy and frustration. His eyes alternate between twinkling and deadness. Though the hero of the play, Walden is not noble – he honestly portrays the flaws that ultimately lead to the play’s climax and dénouement.

As Linda Loman, Willy’s wife, Carolyn Mignini leaves no doubt that she loves her husband. She is loyal and protective. Her smile is more a part of her armor than a talisman of emotion. Her eyes alternate between shimmering with affection, glowering with anger and sinking with disappointment. Mignini and Walden have great chemistry together ; they are comfortable with each other like a long married couple should be.

Avery Clark and Craig Maravich play the two Loman sons. Like their father, they are trapped in an earlier world and cannot truly face reality. As older boy Biff, Clark adds another fine portrayal to his appearances at the Rep. He is at turns deliberately spiteful and other times straining to break free of the past. Maravich makes a Rep debut on a high note as the aptly named Happy Loman. He is blissfully complicit in the family pastime of falsehoods. During flashback scenes, Clark and Maravich actually seem to have grown younger. They are so invested in their characters, they seem to have found a secret fountain of youth. They too have great chemistry with each other and with the actors playing their parents. This is truly a family unit.

Jay E. Raphael plays Charley, Loman’s neighbor and sometime confidant. At first he seems merely to be a likeable eccentric, an avuncular presence and foil for Loman. But toward the end he has two powerful scenes and pulls everything together from earlier appearances. As Charley’s son Bernard, Kevin Sebastian ably captures both the bookish youth and the successful attorney he becomes. As an adult, he seems to literally shrink with discomfort over the delusions in which the Lomans seem to abide.

As Willy’s brother Ben, William Metzo appears to have the most fun of any actors on stage. He exists only in Willy’s memory and imagination. He is both angel and devil on Willy’s shoulder. Metzo clearly relishes the chance to be an eccentric adventurer, storyteller and conscience for Willy.

Christopher Ryan plays Willy’s boss, the son of his former boss. His character is meant to be callous and unlikable, which Ryan captures. But in his portrayal, the character is not evil. He realizes that time has marched on and doesn’t seem to know how to relate to people like Willy who haven’t grasped it. In their brief moments, Joe Menino, Stephanie Gunderman, Rachael Small and Andi Watson offer fully-fleshed out characters who interact with and have impact on the Lomans.

Hupp’s direction is seamless. He keeps the action moving while trusting the actors, audience and script to allow for silence when it is needed. This is not a revolutionary staging, but it is also not a museum piece. Under Hupp’s leadership, this production approaches the play as if it were a new work. This lends a freshness and vitality to the production. It also adds to the timeless appeal of the period piece. Hupp directs the play with a loving and respectful touch, but with his own vision.

Mike Nichols’ set is an homage to Jo Mielziner’s iconic original Broadway set. But Nichols, being the master artist that he is, creates a set that is his own. On the Rep’s small stage, he creates not only the Loman’s cramped and comfortable post-World War I house, but also evokes the looming encroachment of post-World War II “progress.”

Rafael Castanara Colon’s costumes are spot-on. They are tailor made for characters, most of whom lived in an off-the-rack world. Lynda J. Kwallek’s props also help establish the time and place of the action. These very matter-of-fact representations combine with the evocative sound design of Allan Branson and lighting of Kenton Yeager to shift not only through time and space but also between the harsh reality of the Lomans’ world and the characters’ fantasies and reminiscences. Hupp commissioned a newly recorded version of Alex North’s original Broadway score which enhances the production.

The Arkansas Rep production of Death of a Salesman is not to be missed. Don’t let the fact that it is a drama dissuade you – Hupp and his cast have mined Miller’s text for many honestly humorous moments. This may be an “important” play which was taught in school – but it has many lessons to teach us about ourselves and others.

The play raises many questions and offers hints of answers, but no final solutions. In the end, two of the characters offer contradictory assessments of the life of Willy Loman. Both are right, but yet both are wrong. Walden’s performance and Hupp’s direction play no favorites with these competing views. They leave it to the audience to ponder. This is a production which will stay with audience members long after they have left the theatre.

Death of a Salesman runs through May 12 at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. To borrow a line from the play “Attention must be paid.” While there are no answers which are “free and clear” (to borrow another line), it is a journey well worth taking for audiences and the actors.

Ark Rep’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN this week!

Salesman (1)Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer, Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle winning Death of a Salesman opens at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre this week.  Previews are Wednesday and Thursday night before Friday’s opening night.  The production runs through May 12.

Death of a Salesman has been hailed as the greatest American play.  The central character, Willy Loman, has been compared to heroes in Aristotlean proportions.

But at the heart of all the hype is family bound by love and crushed by disappointments as they struggle to make sense of life.  Though set in the post World War II era, these themes resonate today.

Arkansas Rep Producing Artistic Director Robert Hupp is directing this production.  He has assembled a powerhouse cast led by Robert Walden as Willy Loman.  In her Arkansas Rep debut, Broadway vet Carolyn Mignini plays Linda Loman, his wife.  Their two sons are played by Avery Clark and Craig Maravich.  Clark has quickly become a Rep audience favorite through his performances in Hamlet, The 39 Steps and Henry V.  Maravich is making his Rep debut.

Others in the cast are Broadway vet William Metzo, Arkansas Rep vets Jay E. Raphael and Joe Menino, and Christopher Ryan and Kevin Sebastian, Stephanie Gunderman , Rachael Small and Andi Watson.

The design team includes Mike Nichols (sets), Rafael Colon Castanera (costumes), Allan Branson (sound), Lynda J. Kwallek (props) and Kenton Yeager (lighting).

Prior to the performances on Wednesday, April 24 and Thursday, April 25, a preshow talk will take place on the set with Hupp and members of the creative team. It will be from 6:15pm to 6:45pm.  There will be another opportunity to learn more about the production on May 1 at the Clinton School at 12 noon.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette presents The Rep’s “Pay What You Can Night” on Wed., April  24 Patrons can pay any amount they wish for their ticket. Tickets must be purchased in person at the Box Office at 601 Main Street the day of the performance. The Box Office will be open from 9 a.m. until curtain. Tickets are limited to (2) two per person. Offer is based on seating availability.

Performance times are Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7pm, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm.