Monday, August 20, 2012

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee/All in the Timing

Bob DeDea; Caitlin Frances. Photo: Laura Campbell
Top L to R Alex Smith; Brandon Walker: Ben Sasnett. Bottom L to R Chauncey Trask; Sierra Tinhof; Alicia Burch. Photo: Laura Campbell

Something familiar, something peculiar
reviewed by Michael Dresdner

One cast, two days, seven plays. That’s what’s afoot in Federal Way this summer, and if you’re smart, you’ll hoof it down there and take advantage of it.

Centerstage, a bastion of great theatre, has teamed up with the drama department of Central Washington University to stage a Summer Theatre Festival reminiscent of classic summer stock, where one group of actors puts on different shows on alternating weeks or nights.

In this case, a combined cast made up of three Centerstage and five CWU actors stages a fairly familiar and well-loved musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and alternates it with a rather peculiar set of six, short, one act comedies, dubbed All in the Timing, from playwright David Ives. Based on the results, it’s pretty clear that CWU’s talent pool can easily hold its own with the very admirable Centerstage troupe.

From the Centerstage side comes DuWayne Andrews, Jr., Bob De Dea, and Caitlin Frances. If you’ve been lucky enough, or wise enough, to be a regular patron, you’ll recognize them from past successes. Hailing from CWU comes a similar group of young talents; Ben Sasnett, Sierra Tinhof, Brandon Walker, Alicia Renee Burch, Alex Smith, and Chauncey Trask. There were too many great characters created by this universally talented troupe to call out a string of high points. I’ll simply say that this is an outstanding ensemble, and you’d be crazy to miss it.

As is so often the case at Centerstage, the top notch actors were abetted, on both nights, by clever and simple scenery, spot on costumes and lighting, excellent directing and choreography, and in the case of Spelling Bee, the best musical support around.

Spelling Bee, a popular and often performed musical, has a pair of quirky moderators proctoring a spelling bee peopled with a gaggle of peculiar and socially out-of-step savants, with a useless and suspect grief counselor in attendance. There’s a wealth of great music and dance numbers, both as a group and individually, as each of the off-center contestants exposes his or her odd back story and personal angst, and trots out an affectation or two used to make it through the competition.

The musical teems with word plays, sight gags, and often masquerading as awkwardness, some fine dancing to go with the singing and acting. It’s a perfect vehicle for classic triple threat (singing, dancing, acting) performers, and this was, top to bottom, a perfect cast for it.

As usual, Centerstage pulled in an excellent production team consisting of director/choreographer Chris Nardine, musical director/keyboardist David Duvall (abetted by percussionist Troy Lund), set and lighting designer Christina Barrigan, and costume designer Jessica Pribble.

The next night I saw All in the Timing, a sextet of very funny, often very odd, comedies. All six were short but engaging, and the evening sped by.

Sure Thing is the classic boy meets girl in a café, and each tries to say the right thing so that a date ensues. However, there’s a delightful twist. Each time one says the wrong, or less than ideal, thing, a service counter bell dings. That’s the signal, often used in improv, to back up a line or two and try again. The result is a hilarious sequence of alternate offshoots that, after enough mulligans, finally gets the couple together.

Words, Words, Words has the classic “three monkeys at typewriters will eventually create Hamlet” conjecture, but in this case, we hear the monkeys’ point of view as they caper about and expound on their take of the situation. The Universal Language is another boy meets girl story, but this time with an entrepreneur offering lessons in an Esperanto-type universal language. It’s wonderful wordplay, and yes, you’ll understand everything they say, even though it is not, strictly speaking, in English.

Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread takes a couple of simple sentences by four people in a bakery and deconstructs them into a collage of song, movement, and rhythm. In The Philadelphia, a man explains to his hapless friend that everything is going awry because he is stuck in a Philadelphia, a day were you can only get what you want by asking for the opposite. Variations on the Death of Trotsky, is just pure silliness, with a buffoonish Trotsky, a climbing axe firmly imbedded in his head, dying, over and over again in slightly different ways, after his wife clarifies events for him by reading about his death from an encyclopedia clearly written in the future.

Cynthia White did an excellent job of directing Timing, backed up by costume designer Lacy Halverson, and choreographer/stage manager Kate Gregory.

As an actor myself, I was impressed – make that amazed – that one cast can manage to do what amounts to seven totally different plays, one of them a full length musical, and create some 25 diverse characters, without getting them all mixed up. As a reviewer, I was simply delighted to be able to beat the heat in air conditioned comfort while I got to indulge in two back-to-back nights of non-stop fun.


August 18th and 19th at 2 pm,
August 22nd, 24th and 25th at 8 pm.
All in the Timing
August 18th and 23rd at 8 pm,
August 25th and 26th at 2 pm.

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