Flawed but Fun

Two kid-themed adult plays deserve your love—even if they both need to grow up a bit

I hope I don't sound like a bad person when I say that children are easier to love in general than they are in specifics. They're cute, and loving, and tomorrow's leaders and all that, but it takes a little voluntary amnesia to get past the tantrums, selfishness and destructive tendencies.

Well, two children-themed shows are now onstage in the Old Pueblo. They are lovable, earnest and full of heart, but when you get down to it, not always on their best behavior.

The Arizona Repertory Theatre at the UA goes back to school with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the exuberant musical by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin that, in this case, both shines and stumbles.

In case you think you're experiencing déjà vu: Yes, this is the second production of Spelling Bee to appear in Tucson this year. (Arizona Onstage Productions offered their take late in the summer.) If you missed it before, now's your chance. Parents, though, should be aware that some material may be inappropriate for children.

The musical is exactly what the title indicates—a school spelling bee, with pint-sized nerves, animosity and ambition spilling out into song and dance. Many enter, but only one leaves victorious.

The show was developed improvisationally by its original cast, and that spirit is maintained as characters interact with the audience, whether they're reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or hawking refreshments. Three guest spellers are chosen from the audience to join the competition—and, occasionally, the choreography. (They're screened in advance, so you won't be ambushed.)

In order to provide an opportunity to as many students as possible, ART is using two alternating casts. (I saw the "blue" cast.) Between that and the interaction with the volunteers, one could conceivably see the show repeatedly and have a different experience every time.

If you're looking for a fun evening, there is plenty to enjoy here. Young misanthrope William Barfée (Max Nussbaum) uses his "magic foot" as a spelling tool, which builds into a Busby Berkeley-style production number. Home-schooler Leaf Coneybear (Patrick Spencer) wistfully confesses that he's "not that smart" before becoming blissfully distracted by his own hair.

The humor is leavened with moments of tenderness. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Meaghan Sullivan), under intense pressure from her parents, hopes the audience can still love her if she doesn't win—"You hate losers. So do I." Olive Ostrovsky (Caitlin Kiley) imagines her absent parents (Michelle Wicklas and Nikko Kimzin) pouring out their love to her, even as she pointedly spells "chimerical," meaning fanciful or highly unlikely.

But those moments are quickly undercut by the perpetual enthusiasm of hostess Rona Lisa Peretti (Michelle Wicklas), or by Vice Principal Panch (Chris Karl), who deadpans spelling words like "apoop" and "omphaloskepsis."

Unfortunately, in addition to the yearbook-worthy moments, there are a number of ways in which the production doesn't seem to have fully matured. Surprisingly, these come primarily from the show's "adult supervision."

Finn's songs prioritize spontaneity over craftsmanship, and Sheinkin's script is tailored to fit the clowning of its original cast, resulting in a show that is often uneven and rather eccentric. Director Samantha K. Wyer has not quite managed to mold her eager cast to fill out those awkward corners. The production is scattered with line exchanges and stage business that feel confusing or unmotivated.

The "Magic Foot" number is a delight, but much of Rob Gretta's other choreography falls flat. The angular movement of the opening number suggests adolescent awkwardness, but is too closed off to connect emotionally with the audience. And "I Speak Six Languages," intended to be a tour de force for hyper-talented Marcy Park (Erin Asselta), feels like it's spinning its wheels.

Unexpectedly frustrating was the challenge of sound quality. Due to either Matt Marcus' sound design or the acoustic quirks of the space, some songs—such as the anarchic ensemble number "Pandemonium"—sounded muffled and distant, while others—including the uncomfortable "Chip's Lament" (aka "My Unfortunate Erection"), sung by Preston Maguire—came across loud and clear.

Two gold stars, however, go to scenic designer Bruce Brockman for his school-gym set, which is both fractured and extraordinarily detailed. The spellers sit on risers on a small stage with intentionally terrible sightlines, surrounded by backpacks, beaded jump ropes and all manner of childhood detritus that is sure to bring back long-repressed memories.

Meanwhile, in another part of the playground, Beowulf Alley Theatre Company's Late Night Theatre series is presenting An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein.

Those familiar with Silverstein—beloved author of children's works and poetry, including The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends—may be puzzled by the "adult" in the title. Well, in this collection of skits, Silverstein lends his absurdist whimsy to content that is decidedly not for children.

The world's best daddy gives his daughter something dead for her birthday. A man and woman verbally assault each other with euphemisms for breasts and genitalia. The creator of the iconic yellow happy face gets her violent comeuppance. And, in the evening's only rhymed scene, two prostitutes market their services in great detail.

Entering this world promises the danger of full-grown children run amok, especially as the cast greets you at the door, dressed in outlandish handmade costumes and vying with each other to distribute stickers, silly nametags (I was "Freckles") and paper crowns. An actress dressed as a nurse gives the proceedings a madhouse atmosphere.

That madness, sadly, largely abates once the play begins. The ensemble's inexperience keeps the production from really taking flight, but their enthusiasm goes a long way toward providing plenty of laughs, and opening night was well-received by an audience of friends and supporters.

It is rare to find any theater production without flaws. But, like flawed children, even flawed theater productions offer plenty to love, and it's important to support them in order to have the continued pleasure of watching them grow up.

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