An elementary school spelling bee is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Israel, let alone an English spelling bee. However, The Stage, Tel Aviv's premier English language performing arts organization, is not known for going with the grain. The Stage embraces the extraordinary in quirky productions like "Miscast! 2 - Less Grease, More Hairspray," the daringly scandalous "Vagina Monologues," and now, their very first musical, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."
The Tony-award winning musical follows an eclectic group of sixth-graders in their eager pursuit to win this year's spelling bee, each for their own distinct reasons. Visually, everything in The Stage's adaptation was quite simple; the main set piece was reminiscent of an afterschool drama club project, the costumes were merely extensions of each character's 'stereotype,' and the only props were number tags, a trophy, and a concession tray filled with candy that Charlito "Chip" Tolentino (Yuval Shwartsman) wore in his memorable solo, "My Unfortunate Erection," otherwise known as Chip's Lament.
While some might interpret the no-frills set as a negative, it actually works in the performers' favor, leaving them with nothing to hide behind. As a result, they are forced to take to their characters entirely–their quirks, their stories, their histories.
One character that truly stood out was Leaf Coneybear (Idan Yechieli). Not only did he sport his red cape with pride, Yechieli wore his character as comfortably as his handmade costume, down to the tiniest mannerisms like the way he moved his fingers and his crooked walk.
Another standout actor was Darren Glick. Glick, whose long history with the Tel Aviv-based company trails back long before its rebirth as The Stage, brought a refreshing and honest humor to the show in his role as Vice Principle Douglas Panch, the bee's official pronouncer. Most of the house's fits of laughter stemmed from his requests for hilariously topical words from the bee's participants, such as 'balagan' and 'jihad.'
In fact, it was these moments that spoke to the time and place that kept the performance relevant. Even though some subject matter felt oddly outdated–like the weight placed on Logainne "Schwarzy" SchwartzandGrubenierre's two gay fathers–references to Hebrew slang, Donald Trump, and Charlottesville inspired empathy from the audience. The choice to cast Jesus Christ (Marlene Bachar) as an Old Jewish woman was another 'smart' decision, as was the incorporation of three surprise guests into the mix.
Three audience members were chosen at random to join the cast on stage for the bee and stand in as actual live participants–number tags and all. Due to simple stage direction and dance moves that anyone could follow, the three participants added a certain depth to the show.
Since "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a Broadway musical, it's important to talk about what makes a musical a musical: the singing. While the men excelled on the acting front, when it comes to vocals, it was the women who truly stole the show. One showstopper was ironically also the Director, Maya Ben-Yaacov. When her character finally spoke out to her absent parents in the powerful "The I Love You Song," the young Olive Ostrovsky's powerhouse voice shines brightly over the background harmonies of her father (Chaim Jacobson) and mother (Allison Morse).
Morse, whose main role was Rona Lisa Peretti, the number one realtor in all of Putnam County and the bee's moderator, was the second shining star. Her vocal control was astounding from the moment she burst through the back entrance at the start of the show to the very last note she hit.
All in all, although some characters were more believable, and some singers were stronger soloists, the cast found their groove in the group numbers. Their harmonies as a unit were very melodic, indeed, and for a volunteer-based theater production, The Stage's adaptation of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," not only met expectations, it exceeded them.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" has two more performances tonight (September 7th) and Saturday (September 9th) at Beit Yad Labanim, 63 Pinkas, Tel Aviv. If you haven't bought tickets yet, please do so. You may even get to 'bee' in the performance. Visit TheStageTLV.com for tickets.