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.

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Toil and Trouble, Sound & Fury, Damn Spots on stage at Arkansas Rep

ScottishPlayMurder, madness and magic haunt every shadowy corner in the most powerful of William Shakespeare’s great tragedies.

After receiving an ominous prophecy on a blood-soaked battlefield, the Thane of Cawdor and his ambitious wife claw their way to the Scottish throne, and damned be all who stand in their way! Each step closer to fulfilling his royal Fate leads the General deeper and deeper into a fiendish quagmire of carnage and corruption, from which none can survive; not even him.

“The original House of Cards. It’s fitting to start off a milestone season with the English language’s greatest author,” said Bob Hupp, Producing Artistic Director at Arkansas Repertory Theatre. “Shakespeare keeps us honest, and tests our mettle when we seek to tell great stories that demand to live on a stage. I’ve been reading and seeing productions of this play for more than 30 years, now I’m ready to direct it for you this fall.”

Join The Rep as it casts a spell on Arkansas audiences with this powerful production that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The cast is lead by Michael Stewart Allen and Jacqueline Correa as the scheming couple.  Others in the cast are Ryan Allen, Oliver Archibald, Adam Cook, Courtney Bennett, Christina Clower, Berkeley Courtney-Moore, Brooklyn Courtney-Moore, Heather Dupree, Cary Hite, Robert Ierardi, Damon McKinnis, Joseph J. Menino, Gregory Myhre, Seth D. Rabinowitz, Jacques Roy, Marisol Sela, Kurt Benjamin Smith, Mitch Tebo, David Tennal and Damian Thompson.

The production is directed by Rep Producing Artistic Director Bob Hupp.  Other members of the creative team are Mike Nichols (scenery), Marianne Custer (costumes), Dan Kimble (lighting), Allan Branson (sound), Lynda J. Kwallek (props), Rob Pickens (wigs), Geoffrey Kent (fight director), Mark Binns (composer), Paige Martin Reynolds (dramaturg/assistant director) and Katie M. Dayley (AEA stage manager).

The production opens tonight and runs through September 27.

Premiere of new production PROJECT ELAN next on stage at Arkansas Rep

Project êlan small2Project Élan is a brand-new, original, culture-current musical that seeks to shed light on the individual and universal needs of the millennial generation. Digital and uniquely undefinable, this generation seeks to find answers in an unpredictable world. And although they may appear to be an age overrun by technology and isolation, their dreams are timeless. The millennial generation still longs for the most basic of human needs – safety, hope and love.

Conceived and directed by The Rep’s Resident Director and Director of Education, Nicole Capri, Project Élan is written by Capri and seven SMTI alumni and staff including. The production, which opens on the 10-year anniversary of The Rep’s Summer Musical Theatre Intensive (SMTI) program, features approximately 50 of the best past and present alumni from the last decade of the program.

Project Élan features a diverse musical score with original songs from almost every genre of music – contemporary-alternative, acoustic-folk, urban-rock, indie-pop, jazz-fusion, Nashville-sound, progressive-Broadway and sunshine-pop.

The word “élan” – is defined in several ways — “to live in the moment,” “to live with reckless abandon and enthusiasm,” “confidence,” and “spirit.” The writers of this piece seek to produce a relevant and relatable musical that speaks to the heart of all generations.

Public previews begin tomorrow with the official opening night on Friday, May 8. The production runs through May 16.

The creative team includes:

  • Nicole Capri – conception, director, choreographer, writer
  • Mark Binns – writer, musical director
  • Bobby Banister – writer
  • Conly Basham – writer
  • Sam Clark – writer
  • Robert Frost – writer
  • Jimmy Landfair – writer
  • Charity Vance – writer
  • Marisa Kirby – choreographer
  • Stephen K. Stone – choreographer
  • Drew Posey – set designer
  • Shelly Hall – costume designer
  • Dan Kimble – lighting designer
  • Lynda J. Kwallek – props designer
  • Travis Mosler – video designer
  • Beth Thiemann – stage manager

Final Weekend for THE WHIPPING MAN at the Arkansas Rep

THEREP_THE WHIPPINGMAN (no credits)-page-001There are only three chances remaining to see the riveting play on stage at the Arkansas Rep – Matthew Lopez’s award winning The Whipping Man.  

An extraordinary tale of loyalty, deceit and deliverance, The Whipping Man opened off-Broadway in 2011 to critical acclaim, winning the 2011 John Gassner New Play Award from the NY Outer Critics Circle and becoming one of the most produced plays in the country.

On Passover, 1865, the Civil War has just ended and the annual celebration of freedom from bondage is being observed in Jewish homes across the country. One of these homes sits in ruins. As Jewish confederate officer Caleb DeLeon returns from the war, badly wounded, to find his family missing and only two former slaves remaining, Simon and John, the two men are forced to care for him.

As Caleb, Simon and John wait for the family’s return, they wrestle with their shared past as master and slave, digging up long-buried family secrets as well as new ones. With Passover upon them, the three men unite to celebrate the holiday, even as they struggle to comprehend their new relationships at a crossroads of personal and national history and to come to terms with the sordid legacies of slavery and war that threaten each of their future freedoms.

Ryan Barry, who was featured in last season’s Clybourne Park returns to the Rep joined by Michael A. Shepperd and Damian Thompson.  The production is directed by Rep vet Gilbert McCauley (Gee’s Bend, Looking Over the President’s Shoulder, The Piano Lesson, A Soldier’s Play, Fences, Frost/Nixon).  Other members of the creative team are set designer Mike Nichols, costume designer Yslan Hicks, lighting designer Dan Kimble, sound designer Allan Branson and props designer Lynda J. Kwallek.

Performances are at 8pm tonight, 2pm tomorrow and 7pm tomorrow night.

Award winning THE WHIPPING MAN now at Arkansas Rep

THEREP_THE WHIPPINGMAN (no credits)-page-001As Producing Artistic Director Bob Hupp often says, one of the objectives of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre is to tell a variety of stories.  Following the holiday frolic that was Elf, next on stage is Matthew Lopez’s award-winning play The Whipping Man.

An extraordinary tale of loyalty, deceit and deliverance, The Whipping Man opened off-Broadway in 2011 to critical acclaim, winning the 2011 John Gassner New Play Award from the NY Outer Critics Circle and becoming one of the most produced plays in the country.

On Passover, 1865, the Civil War has just ended and the annual celebration of freedom from bondage is being observed in Jewish homes across the country. One of these homes sits in ruins. As Jewish confederate officer Caleb DeLeon returns from the war, badly wounded, to find his family missing and only two former slaves remaining, Simon and John, the two men are forced to care for him.

As Caleb, Simon and John wait for the family’s return, they wrestle with their shared past as master and slave, digging up long-buried family secrets as well as new ones. With Passover upon them, the three men unite to celebrate the holiday, even as they struggle to comprehend their new relationships at a crossroads of personal and national history and to come to terms with the sordid legacies of slavery and war that threaten each of their future freedoms.

Ryan Barry, who was featured in last season’s Clybourne Park returns to the Rep joined by Michael A. Shepperd and Damian Thompson.  The production is directed by Rep vet Gilbert McCauley (Gee’s Bend, Looking Over the President’s Shoulder, The Piano Lesson, A Soldier’s Play, Fences, Frost/Nixon).  Other members of the creative team are set designer Mike Nichols, costume designer Yslan Hicks, lighting designer Dan Kimble, sound designer Allan Branson and props designer Lynda J. Kwallek.

The production opens Friday, January 23 and runs through Sunday, February 8.

A Sparklejollytwinklejingley Show!

THEREP_ELF (no credits)-page-001The holidays are here. And if you need to get into the Christmas spirit, I suggest you buy, beg or bargain to get a ticket to see Buddy the Elf and his friends in the musical Elf which is playing at the Arkansas Rep through January 4.

This frothy, fun, friendly show has but one aim – to entertain.  And how it does succeed.

With a smart, witty, heart-filled book by Tony winners Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, TV’s “Slings & Arrows”), the story works on several different levels. (Incidentally, Meehan takes a swipe at his other Christmas-NYC set musical Annie with a joke, while Martin seems to be aping The Drowsy Chaperone by having the story open with a man in a chair). The score by Tony nominees Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar (The Wedding Singer) ranges from toe-tapping to heartstring-pulling.

Elf is, of course, based upon the eponymously named film.  Disclaimer – I’ve not seen the movie.  I do not get Will Ferrell’s appeal, so steer clear of most movies starring him.  But love of the movie is not necessary to enjoy the stage musical. The book, score, cast and production values take the audience on a wild sleigh ride of holiday fun regardless of familiarity with the source material.

As Buddy the Elf, Ethan Paulini is a chief reason for the show’s appeal. He is rarely off stage, and somehow manages to keep a high level of energy throughout. His ebullient Buddy is both naïve and knowing. Whether singing, dancing or acting, he never overplays the part or goes for cheap laughs.  Through his performance, one believes that he really does charm his way into everyone’s hearts regardless of their age or gender.

As the object of Buddy’s affection, it is a joy to watch Alyssa Gorgone’s Jovie transform from guarded to glowing.  She deftly handled her songs and dances.  Gorgone and Paulini have a nice chemistry together as the court each other.

David Hess moves from blustery to boasting in his portrayal of Buddy’s dad.  Anna Lise Jensen is a delight as his long-suffering wife whose struggle to find her own place mirror’s Buddy’s quest.  As Buddy’s younger half-brother Price Clark is a joy to watch. He is neither precocious nor cloying. Instead, he is a believable kid who is concerned about his parents and is thrilled to have a new brother.

Tessa Faye stops the show as Deb the secretary as she comically aids Buddy and leads the office in a rousing production number. Kyron Turner and Tanner Wilson make the most of their scenes as harried employees hoping for a holiday miracle. J. B. Adams bookends the show as an avuncular, folksy Santa Claus.

From beleaguered New Yorkers to bored Macy’s elves to depressed Santas, the ensemble fill the stage with delightful characters. Hannah Eakin, Allison Stearns, Jason Samuel, Jimmy Kieffer, Anthony Bryant, Chris McNiff, Jack Doyle, Samantha Harrington, Tatiana H. Green, Marisa Kirby, Eric Mann, Kennedy Sample and Mary Katelin Ward have enough vigor, vim and verve to make the cast seem much larger than it actually is.

The elves are played by the younger members of the cast. These kids are having fun – and why not? They get to spend the show in two of the most magical settings imaginable: The North Pole and New York City at Christmas.  They very ably perform their production numbers and create memorable characters without stealing focus from Buddy and Santa.  Addison Dowdy, Gunner Gardner, Reagan Hodson, Anna Beth Jeane, Ethan Marbaise, Max McCurdy, Danny Phillips, Grace Pitts, Corbin Pitts, Niall Prochazka, Marisol Sela, and Madison Stolzer were welcome additions to the production.  Most of these performers are seasoned veterans of the Rep’s Summer Musical Theatre Intensive. They show that their talent works in the wintertime too.

Nicole Capri directed Elf with a light, comic touch. She neither glosses over nor smothers the audience with the heart in the show, she trusted her performers and the story to bring it out.  She keeps the show moving at a brisk pace while allowing for enough quiet moments that it does not seem frantic.  Marisa Kirby’s creative, crowd-pleasing choreography put the actors through their paces.  Together Capri and Kirby fashioned production numbers which allowed each performer to stand out as an individual character while still part of a seamless ensemble.

Elf’s magical world was ably served by Shelly Hall’s colorful costumes, Dan Kimble’s lighting, Allan Branson’s sound and Lynda J. Kwallek’s props.  One of the joys of the show is undoubtedly the songs. Credit for that goes largely to Mark Binns, the show’s musical director.  He leads the orchestra as they play the peppy, tuneful score. He also deserves credit for helping the actors maximize their sounds as they perform the songs while executing Kirby’s inventive choreography.

Though based on a 2000s movie, Elf is really a throwback to 1950s and 1960s workplace musicals. There are the buffoonly bullying boss, the comic-relief secretary, the dancing office boys and office girls, the disconnected wife and kids, and, of course, the outsider hero who saves the day and wins the heart of the leading lady. The show also offers dancing Santas, prancing elves, and a travelogue’s worth of New York City settings.

Elf doesn’t ask the audience to think too hard or to get wrapped up in cloying sentimentality. It merely wants to entertain as it allows the audience an escape from daily strife.

No matter your holiday of choice at this time of the year, the Rep is giving audiences a present with Elf!

ELF takes stage at Arkansas Rep through January 4

THEREP_ELF (no credits)-page-001The Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of the holiday musical Elf opens tonight for a run through January 4.

Adapted by Thomas Meehan (The Producers) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) from the popular 2003 film starring Will Ferrell, with a score by Tony®-nominated songwriting team of Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer), Elf turns one of Hollywood’s most beloved holiday hits into a hilarious and heartwarming musical that towers above the rest.

When a young orphan who mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts is raised in the North Pole, unaware that he is actually a human, his enormous size and poor toy-making abilities eventually cause him to face the truth. As he embarks on a journey to New York City to find his birth father and discover his true identity, Buddy strives to win over his new family and help New York remember the true meaning of Christmas.

The cast is led by Rep veteran Ethan Paulini as Buddy.  Others in the cast include J. B. Adams, Price Clark, Jack Doyle, Tessa Faye, Alyssa Gorgone, David Hess, Anna Lise Jensen, Jason Samuel, Anthony D. Bryant, Hannah Eakin, Samantha L. Harrington, Jimmy Kieffer, Marisa Kirby, Eric Mann, Chris McNiff, Allison Stearns, Kyron Turner, Tanner Ray Wilson, Tatiana H. Green, Kennedy Sample and Mary Katelin Ward.  The elves are played by Addison Rae Dowdy, Gunner Gardner, Reagan Hodson, Anna Beth Jeane, Ethan Marbaise, Max McCurdy, Danny Phillips, Corbin Pitts, Grace Pitts, Niall Prochazka, Marisol Sela and Madison Stolzer.

The creative team includes director Nicole Capri, music director Mark Binns, choreographer Marisa Kirby, costume designer Shelly Hall, sound designer Allan Branson, prop designer Lynda J. Kwallek and lighting designer Dan Kimble.