A title can be a telling thing.
Take the play “Great Expectations,” based on the novel of the same name by Charles Dickens. You know what to expect. Musings on expectations.
But themes of expectations – plus all the tragedies and triumphs that can accompany them – are sometimes found in unexpected places.
What do we expect of ourselves as parents, as professionals, as people? What do our children expect of us, of themselves, of life? What do we expect of them – and when is that a bad thing?
It’s all fair game when Mesa Encore Theatre tackles “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at the Mesa Arts Center through Sept 12.
Lizabeth and I were eager to see the show last weekend because it’s directed and choreographed by one of her terrifically talented theatre arts teachers at ASA, which is affiliated with the neighboring Phoenix Theatre (as well as Ballet Arizona).
Toby Yatso has a background in acting, directing and music – so we expected top-notch performances all around. The cast, crew and creative team met, and exceeded, our expectations.
Great comedic timing. Genuinely funny homages to Arizona’s idiocyncracies. Stellar vocals. Whimsical choreography. Simple but charming set pieces.
I fell in love with the ‘no bullies’ sign near one entrance to the theater, and had to resist the urge to snap a photo for posterity. I am a bit of a sign fanatic, as some of you may already have noticed.
We’ve both seen the work before so I wasn’t sure how a subsequent viewing would fare. But as it happens, Lizabeth and I each concluded that the intimate space of this particular theater at Mesa Arts Center was perfect for this piece.
Yatso has plenty of experience mounting works with large casts of students on relatively small stages – so he’s a master of making it work. (The Tim Gunn, perhaps, of theater fun?)
You should know before you go that this musical has mature content, including an entire song dedicated to a poorly-timed expression of a male student’s physical response to seeing the girl of his dreams in the audience. (Crossword lovers: Think eight letters.)
Also expect numerous stereotypes (the slow kid, the delinquent kid, the nerdy kid, the kid with a cause, the kid with meddling parents and more).
One girl has a workaholic dad and a mom who’s escaped to an ashram in India. Another has two dads, one sporting an apron neither Julia Child nor Rachel Ray would be caught dead in.
One dons a dinosaur t-shirt and a blue cape that likely doubles as a ‘blankie.’ Another wears a scouts uniform. Four of the spellers are wearing their everyday duds because they’re actually audience members who are invited to participate as spelling bee contestants for part of the show.
Seems the company’s artistic director, Debra Jo Davey, is a former chorus teacher who remembered Lizabeth from ASA, and gleefully added her name to the list of willing participants. “It must be karma,” said Lizabeth, “for all those times I told my friends something wasn’t spelled correctly.”
Better Liz than me, I thought, because people have such high expectations in the spelling department when it comes to writers and editors. I used to share the compunction, but have learned over time to let a bit of my prose perfectionism pass.
Before blogging, I expected perfection of myself and everyone around me. Now I can take a typo or two if the thoughts are there. Imagine the brilliant ideas we might never see expressed if typo terror or grammar guerilla warfare reigned supreme. Let it go already.
In the end, it’s not about the spelling. It’s about the choices we make – for ourselves, for others, despite ourselves, despite others. Nobody likes to hear the ‘ding’ of the bell after a word goes awry. But life goes on. We learn new words. We embrace creative spelling and the freedoms that come with it.
“Spelling Bee” is a lovely, lighthearted opportunity to ponder the perils of perfectionism – dressed up in witty dialogue and song accompanied by a lively four-piece band. You’d be hard pressed to find a more refreshing bit of theater to enjoy with family or friends this weekend.
But what of taking your children or teens along? The younger audience members I spoke with after the show gave me good reviews when I asked (and there’s little in this musical that tops the themes and language of most PG-13 movies these days).
A teenage boy who wasn’t terribly talkative to begin with said he enjoyed it both for the sheer fun of it and for some of its deeper meanings, noting that it’s really up to parents to gauge what material is a good match for their child’s maturity level.
My own take is this: Before children learn all those lovely four (or even eight) letter words, the words mostly fly right over their heads into the netherworld of the barely noticeable.
Once they learn them, which happens far more often thanks to peers and television programming, you’ll do better to allow the occasional exposure – especially within the context of live performance art. That door won’t stay locked forever.
The youngest audience member I ran into was an eight-year-old girl, who’d come with her mom to hear her uncle play drums in the band (he rocked it). She seemed oblivious to elements of the play targeted to older viewers.
Still, her mom did share that the next musical they plan to see (along with her Brownie troupe) is “Beauty and the Beast” at ASU Gammage — which is where I first saw “Spelling Bee” with Lizabeth several seasons ago.
I expect they’ll have another great time.
Note: Check out the raffle gift baskets and other goodies at the MET display staffed by cheerful volunteers before you hit the show. Just a small donation to their theater scholarship fund earned me a classy “Lousy Donor” button. Or linger after the show to chat with cast and band members who make their way out to mingle. Despite the lack of espresso at the small snack bar nearest to this one particular theater at the MAC, the experience was ever so enjoyable.
Coming up: From sardines to Starbucks?
Photos: Lynn Trimble