Lake Country Players’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee!

I had heard of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but I didn’t know the actual story or format. So going in, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of the play. What I did expect was a very professional tight presentation of the play by the very professional and skilled Lake Country Players…and I was not disappointed.

Obviously the framework for the story is a countywide spelling bee bringing together the winners of regional or citywide bees in the county…and of course the characters have been written to present us with every stereotypical student that you might anticipate being at the spelling bee. And director Phil Stepanski has cast precisely the right actors here and brought out their quirks precisely as needed to bring the characters to life! And allowing the cast to feel their roles and bring to bear the questioning and awkwardness inherent in adolescent life…even when trying to hide it…but the trick here was finding that place in life when the actors are already young adults playing back to their earlier space in youth.

One of the things I didn’t know originally, and that is, Spelling Bee is a musical. And here too Stepanski and cast nail the feelings and moods of the songs…while maintaining character…and getting the choreography just so. So props to Gwen Ter Haar as music director and Grace Scott as choreographer for their incredible contributions to making the song and dance interludes work so incredibly. And one more ovation for Ter Haar for the incredible costuming of the ensemble…each cast member’s persona and role was easily discernible from their attire. And I must mention the set and props…Clayton R Irwin is credited with set painting…and Nancy Hurd for props. These support areas are always singular and help bring out the atmosphere expected from the text. Another area where LCP excels and always amazes me! And yes, I have been in a gym in a basement.

foreground: Michael Kocken as William Barfee. Photo courtesy of the Lake Country Players

There are nine characters…three adults…and six youthful spelling bee contestants…but there is a twist…more later.

So let’s start with the adults! Rona Lisa Peretti is the number one realtor in the county and is the moderator of the spelling bee…but not because of her business prowess…but because she wants to relive her spelling bee win some years (or is it decades) past. Peretti is brought to poignant life by Jenna Martinez who later effectively does double duty as Olive’s mother in a side bar. And the actual spelling bee arbiter is Douglas Panch who is back after a five year hiatus due to an incident but he’s in a better place now! And Noah Maguire is just perfect as the precise overseer with a quick trigger finger on the bell to spell the doom of a ‘loser’! And Daniel Bingham is Mitch Mahoney…yes he is…a miscreant doing community service by acting as the official comfort counselor, handing out juice boxes, hugs, or handshakes when a contestant suffers the catastrophe of a ringing bell. He also serves as one of the Logainne’s sidebars. Despite his youth, Bingham pulls off both ‘adult’ roles.

foreground: Allison Chicorel as Olive Ostrovsky. Photo courtesy of the Lake Country Players

Allison Chicorel brings us Olive Ostrovsky, whose father is late arriving for the bee, whose mother is in an Ashram in India, and who has made best friends with a dictionary. Chicorel brings us the blend of assurance and indecision and a bit of insecurity that inhabits Olive’s persona. And she is involved with just a bit of late play conflict when she and William Barfee are the last two standing. And William Barfee is the essential nerd in this piece, and Michael Kocken makes it seem like the part was written for him. He has certainly mastered his special spelling talent, the magic foot, until his resolve starts to crack when he realizes he has feelings for Olive in the final round. BTW: it’s pronounced Bar-Fay! Emily Mertens plays Marcy Park, a total overachiever in all ways adolescent and Mertens is able to make us aware of Marcy’s accomplishments quite determinedly. Yes, she knows SIX languages as Mertens beautifully explains in the song I Speak Six Languages! And she has her own sidebar when she decides she needs a harder word to spell and asks Jesus for help…and he appears to her in the person of Clayton R. Irwin! The result isn’t quite what she expected.

And an amazing Thomas Hess inhabits an over the top Leaf Coneybear, a youngster who makes his own clothes in certainly his own style, and is just just out there. He’s in this particular bee because other contestants couldn’t make it because the bee coincided with a bat mitzvah. Hess has the proper energy and lack of inhibition to play the care free Leaf! And another over the top performance…in a kinder and gentler way…is Michelle Delamatter’s depiction of Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere. Also an over achiever with apparent self confidence on the surface but a bit of self doubt when confronted by here two rather overbearing fathers. Delamatter’s exuberance in the role is contagious. And her ability to shift in focus in her sidebar with Hess and Bingham as her fathers is true to form.

And lastly…I saved Clayton R. Irwin for last. He plays Chip Tolentino as an active teen-ager…socially and athletically and for an awkward moment sexually. Irwin has the aplomb and physical sensibilities to pull this off most effectively. But as one of the songs in the first act explains very clearly, life is pandemonium…and during a musical number as a prop microphone stand started to take a tumble, Irwin reached for it and the stand over reacted and the microphone caught him in an eyebrow and opened a fairly serious cut. But he championed on later as Jesus with a prominent bandage and director Stepanski was able to make subtle scene changes to continue.

One last cast mention: if you go to see Spelling Bee, there are four other cast openings that are filled by young people in attendance. So you could make your stage debut at LCP! You will earn a juice box when you hear the dreaded bell after your own spelling error!

Here is the link with more information on performance dates and times and on how to order tickets. The show runs through October 1, 2023. The show is rated PG-13+ due to some adult content and sexual innuendo. Lake Country Players present their performances at the Lake Country Playhouse in downtown Hartland WI.

Coincidentally THIS showed up in my news feed this morning! What happens to Spelling Bee Champions When They Grow Old?

The Lake Country Players present Thornton Wilder’s Our Town

It seems incredible that we are celebrating the 85th Anniversary of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town this year. And if you care to join in the celebration, I suggest you attend the Lake Country Players presentation (ticket info is here). Our Town plays directly to the strengths of the Lake Country Players…who work in what I consider a jewel box theater and they always emphasize the text and the characters in their presentations…while working with minimal props and sets. Exactly the prescription that Wilder sets out for his play.

Lake Country Players cast of Our Town, photo courtesy of Lake Country Players, James Baker, Jr photographer

But that minimal approach doesn’t mean that LCP has skimped in casting what is a significantly large cast for a regional theater group. Just the opposite, they have gathered a full cast of amazing actors who clearly inhabit their roles and we are never in doubt about who they are or what they mean to our story. An incredible group!

And once again, LCP has helped us identify and identify with the characters via costuming that clearly places us in the rural United States just after the turn of the 20th Century. How Sarah Jo Martens pulled that off while also starring as Emily is just phenomenal. And kudos also go to producer Nancy Hurd who also took on the challenging task of hair design…everyone had the perfect coif for circa 1901!

And when you have a old chestnut of a play like Our Town, sometimes directors or theater groups like to play around a bit. Sometimes modernizing the text or moving the era that it was originally written for. To LCP’s credit they did neither and the play and this presentation are all the better for it…because yes…just as written this plays into the ensemble’s strengths! So sure, some of the language is dated and some of the concepts aren’t necessarily contemporary…but all of the pathos and humanity clearly comes to the fore…and none of the humor got lost.

Brian Maxwell as George Gibbs and Sarah Jo Martens as Emily Webb and center, Dick Natrop as the preacher, photo courtesy of Lake Country Players, James Baker, Jr photographer

On the other hand, LCP did push the envelope a bit with some of their casting. As director Sandra Renick states in the Director’s Note:

We have brought together a remarkably gifted cast, showcasing a beautiful tapestry of backgrounds that encompass diverse body types, ethnicities, abilities, and ages. This deliberate choice underscores our shared bond as individuals…

And LCP and Renick took another bold leap into exploring mental health and bullying and gossip in a small community in the character of choir director, Simon Stimson. Not a surprising exploration given their previous explorations in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time. Again from Renick’s Director’s Note:

Take notice of the subtle murmurs of gossip surrounding Simon, as thy unveil the concealed elements that potentially contributed to his struggles with alcoholism, isolation, and ultimately, his tragic choice.

Talen Marshall as Simon Stimson, photo courtesy of Lake Country Players, James Baker, Jr photographer

And LCP’s Simon Stimson, Talen Marshall, brings the anguish and angst and isolation to the stage very effectively. We don’t quite understand at first but after Act Three, we are in full understanding.

Brian Maxwell as George Gibbs and Sarah Jo Martens as Emily Webb, photo courtesy of Lake Country Players, James Baker, Jr photographer

Of course, the focal character in Our Town is Emily Webb, immaculately played by Sarah Jo Martens. From the exuberance of youth into her budding romance with George Gibbs and on to their inevitable marriage, Martens exhibits each state just so perfectly. And Brian Maxwell is George Gibbs here. It takes him a bit to see the romance in Emily’s eyes but when he does he doesn’t quite understand her initial reticence when he starts to make his move. Maxell gives us the required naivity and boyish wonder…and it broke my heart when he had to forgo baseball…which most of us of a certain coming of age in the 20th Century had to do.

Also solid in their roles, are the respective parents, Paula Nordwig as Mrs. Gibbs, Mack Bates as Dr. Gibbs, Dave Somerscales as Mr. Webb, and Angelique Tober as Mrs. Webb. Strict at times, playful at others, then doting, and everlastingly proud…the perfect parents!

Dick Natrop as the Stage Manager, photo courtesy of Lake Country Players, James Baker, Jr photographer

And though the trajectory story throughout the play is Emily’s…this presentation of the play wouldn’t have been the joy that it is, without Dick Natrop as the stage manager. He’s just the natural for this role…easily moving about the stage…ever present…ever aware. He tells us the back stories while knowing the future and never being uncomfortable with his role or his knowledge. And he is just as aware of our presence as we are of his…Natrop brings Wilder’s convention in breaking down the fourth wall to a very natural reality. For me this was the performance of note!

Brian Maxwell as George Gibbs and Sarah Jo Martens as Emily Webb, photo courtesy of Lake Country Players, James Baker, Jr photographer

Editor’s note 7/11/2023. One thought that I forgot to include in the original response. Given the intimate nature of the theater space, with the stage manager talking directly to us, although we are creatures of our own time and space, we are truly made to feel a part of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, and it becomes, OUR TOWN too.

Our Town continues for one more weekend…July 13th through July 16h 2023. Again ticket info here!

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time at Lake Country Playhouse!

The Lake Country Players are blessed with an intimate jewel-box theater in downtown Hartland. I probably would never have encountered them if my friend Kimberly Laberge hadn’t invited me out to witness her presentation of Cabaret! You can read my response here. So I have been following them since but haven’t been able to get out to the land of my youth to take in another performance…until now!

And then came that fateful email announcing the run of: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time…the longest title of the season of course made me; curious. But then the intriguing synopsis of the play had me hooked. And I’ll share that with you first:

THE STORY: 15-year-old Christopher has an extraordinary brain: He is exceptional at mathematics but ill-equipped to interpret everyday life. He has never ventured alone beyond the end of his road, he detests being touched, and he distrusts strangers. Now it is 7 minutes after midnight, and Christopher stands beside his neighbor’s dead dog, Wellington, who has been speared with a garden fork. Finding himself under suspicion, Christopher is determined to solve the mystery of who murdered Wellington, and he carefully records each fact of the crime. But his detective work, forbidden by his father, takes him on a thrilling journey that upturns his world.

Yes, that’s exactly what it is…but this will not prepare you for the amazing journey you will be provided by the story nor the amazing theater you about to experience via Director James Baker, Jr. and The Lake Country Players. The play itself is an adaptation for the stage by Simon Stephens from the novel by Mark Haddon. The book itself has been banned a number of times, mostly for harsh language and adult conversations. The LCP recommends their presentation for those 13 and older.

Christopher, Wellington, and a Police Officer: courtesy of the Lake Country Players

Once in our seats, we have a prologue from the director, who gives us a bit of background on the story and the play. This little introduction is very helpful and sets the mood for what we are about to see. And then there’s the proviso that LCP is presenting the script as written which includes the warning about the harsh language…and then the perennial warning to turn off our cell phones.

Our protagonist is Christopher Boone, a young man of incredible math skills and deductive talents but challenged in ways most of us can’t comprehend. He will clearly exhibit his skills and sensitivities throughout the play. We initially find him huddled over Wellington, a dog belonging to the family neighbor, Mrs. Shears. Christopher is clearly distraught and isn’t ready for the journey he is about to embark on when Mrs. Shears finds him in her yard with her dead pet.

Christopher and Siobhan: courtesy of the Lake Country Players

Adam Frontera is Christopher Boone, and he proves to be an accomplished actor in an incredibly challenging role for a young man. He maintains his persona…something our 21st Century audience will label as Asperger’s Syndrome or on the spectrum. But Frontera is able to maintain the gestures, gait, facial expressions, deliberate concentration, and verbal idiosyncrasies and cadence that we tend to identify with similar young people. Really amazing given the number of lines and different actions the scenes require and the fact that Frontera in almost always on stage during the two hour play.

Christopher: courtesy of the Lake Country Players

Frontera brings us along on his journey. He makes sure that we can’t feel anything but empathy for his situation. He works the text to bring out the bits of humor and elicits subtle moments of laughter. And we certainly are made to feel those moments of sadness that bring a tear and then later those moments of accomplishment that bring that other type of tear. I was moved far far beyond my expectations. I hope we see Frontera on stage again soon.

So yes this story is built around Christopher’s point(s) of view. And Director Baker has solidly built a stage world that provides us with that. Besides Frontera, the stage is full of other actors, many of whom play multiple roles in multiple settings. And at times the action can be a little confusing but; welcome to Christopher’s world. But if you get lost, the back wall has a projected label to tell us the setting we are currently experiencing. And there between Baker’s staging and Frontera’s performance, even I began to distrust and question the actions and motives of the adults in the play. Well, except one.

Jen Anderson plays Christopher’s teacher, Siobhan, who seems to be the only adult that he really trusts. And she seems a calming force in his life and provides support and encouragement throughout the play. But sometimes I wasn’t sure if her presence was in real time or Christopher’s memory…but it didn’t matter…it worked for him. Anderson clearly exhibited the empathy that the role required.

Christopher and his parents: courtesy of the Lake Country Players

The other two major characters are Christopher’s parents. There is a disturbed family dynamic here that I am not going to go into but it is a driving force in Christopher’s growth. Zackery Henke is Ed, Christopher’s father and his parental guardian through much of the play. And Leysa Miner is Judy, Christopher’s mother. Their relationship is fraught with issues and their relationships to Christopher are distinctly different and can suddenly change with the situation.

Christopher and Siobhan: courtesy of the Lake Country Players

But back to Wellington. Christopher takes on finding his killer as a ‘project’. And that starts to open doors that many adults would like to keep closed. And then, in what appears to be the first willful action of his own, Christopher continues his investigation despite his father’s direct order to stop and several other adults’ admonitions to listen to his father. But that one willful step leads to another and another until he finds the complete story and discovers the murderer and discovers something of himself. And he finally asks one penultimate question of Siobhan which goes unanswered. And I am still trying to figure out whether her cautious silence and pensive look are a positive or negative reaction.

Most of the cast! : courtesy of the Lake Country Players

This is an incredible play. This is an incredible staging. I didn’t expect to find either when I took my seat in the playhouse. The topics too are difficult but they need to be discussed on stage and Baker and the Lake Country Players should be applauded for taking this on. And audiences should take up the risk and challenge as well and see this play in Hartland.

The play runs through May 26, 2023 at Lake Country Playhouse, 221 East Capitol Drive Hartland, WI, 53029. Click here for more information and ticket availability!

P.S. You might want to bone up on your prime numbers before attending!