Encore’s latest leaves audience buzzing
Juice box in hand, Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney (Scott Waisner) prepares to escort an unsuspecting competitor (Julio Salazar) off the stage during the Encore Theatrical Company/Walters State Community College production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” opening tonight.
OK. It’s a musical about a spelling bee?
Are young adults playing the parts of elementary school students?
Could the song “Pandimonium” be reminiscent of the 2008 Encore Theatrical Company hit rock musical “Aida” or the revolving main set piece hearken back memories of the barricade from the 2013 “Les Miserables?”
Maybe not so much.
But they don’t have to. This Encore production does not rely on its witty script and snappy musical numbers to create a positive and entertaining experience for the audience.
Encore brings the talent, plus an extra added level of comedy.
There is the breakout performance of Matt Byrd as Leaf Coneybear. The Grainger County 16-year-old’s debut with Encore begins on roller skates and ends with a vocal salute to every under-valued student who suddenly realizes his potential. He and director Drew Ogle devised an attention-grabbing voice for Coneybear’s alter ego, and Byrd’s commitment to physical comedy pays off for the audience.
Encore Company member Matthew Mimbs gets physical as well in his role as William Barfee, with some creative moves on stage, while delivering the spot-on vocals that have served the Encore stage so well since 2009.
Ogle took full advantage of Jessica Whitmill’s vocal range when casting her as Olive Ostrovsky, the girl who learns to take on life’s challenges despite the absence of involved parents. Whitmill’s solos are tributes to her musical training and natural talent, last seen on the Encore stage in the 2011 “Hairspray” production, as Tammy.
Seth Howerton returns to Encore as Chip Tolentino, and delivers a one-two punch with an earnest performance as a boy whose winning streak may be in jeopardy, while at the same going through a physical letdown — in a manner of speaking.
Sara Parker as the over-parented Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (it’s fun just to hear her name pronounced by Donna Belisle as Mrs. Perretti or Drew Ogle as Mr. Panch) is hilarious, and Scott Waisner portraying comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney is to die for.
The role of Marcy Park is a demanding one, brought home by Dani Tower in a performance that seems custom-made for the veteran of 22 stage shows.
If Belisle’s experience as a Hamblen County school teacher gave her a leg up on portraying the “Bee” adult sponsor who takes the competition a bit too seriously, she’s not talking. Between her stylish suit and ability to belt out a wide range of vocals, she brings her role to the next level. And, she can maintain a straight face while delivering some of the funniest lines of the production.
For any grown-up girl who once had a crush on an assistant vice principle, Ogle delivers a heart-warming performance as the dairy challenged, and possible sexually repressed, Mr. Panch.
A talented, well-rehearsed cast is one thing … but when the audience gets involved, chaos is thrown into the mix.
Just ask Julio Salazaar. The Morristown-Hamblen High School West senior was chosen from the audience to participate in the Bee during Thursday’s sneak peak, and his life may never be the same. Salazar showed good humor, during a pelting from Belisle and Ogle and managed to stay in the competition for several rounds.
The trick to involving unsuspecting audience members is a stack of alternative dialogues that are controlled on-the-spot by Belisle and Ogle.
There is, literally, no telling what will happen during each performance.
Tickets remain for the opening tonight, and the Morristown campus of Walters State Community College has been cleared of snow, including sidewalks.
This show is rated PG, with some double entendre dialogue. Performance dates are February 14, 15, 21, and 22 at 8 p.m. and also February 16, 22, and 23 at 2 p.m.
For tickets to the Morristown performances, visit Encore’s website at www.etcplays.org or call the box office at 423-318-8331.
By Glenna Howington, Tribune Staff Writer