Three years ago I was laughing my gluteus maximus clean off, spellbound as kids wrestled with orthography. The Actors Cabaret of Eugene space was packed with everyone from hip 20-somethings to the pastor at my mom’s church to this critic, and we all raved.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a Tony Award-winning musical that follows the ecstasy and the agony of competitive spelling, examining puberty and parenting along the way. Now, a mere three years later, the spelling wizards are back under a new director, Mark Van Beever. I posed the actor/director with a few questions on the eve of opening to find out what’s fresh in this production.
Three years is a short turnover, and I want to know why ACE decided to mount another production of the same show so soon. Van Beever is all enthusiasm for the play: “Out of the 35 productions I have done at ACE, there are only a couple shows I would do all over again, and Spelling Bee is one of those … The bits of improv and audience participation keep that spark of energy just racing through the show.” And while the last production was a hit, Van Beever notes “There were some things I wanted to try differently this time.”
What’s going to be different? The message will be louder. While the play is really fun, it also has some sharp words for parents who are living through their children. Van Beever says, “I chose to make this production a little more real, you know, a little darker. Not your typical show-tune singing musical.” Under the patina of fun music and rolling jokes, Van Beever hopes “that audience members realize how even though some people are weird, or bizarre, or just not the way you are, that they are special, unique individuals who deserve your patience and tolerance, if not respect. And that winning isn’t everything and that losing doesn’t necessarily make you a loser.”
“Wow!” Van Beever hardly knows where to begin when I ask him about the music. “William Finn has a way of putting emotion right into the music … then when you add a talented cast, the show can bring you to tears, then just as quickly, back to hilarity.”
If you’ve been to any show at ACE in the last nine years, you’ve probably seen Van Beever. If he’s not center stage, he’s directing music, or waiting tables or quite possibly doing all three. I’ve been fascinated by his commitment to ACE for years, and I asked what is it about the Cabaret that keeps him coming back. “Honestly, it’s because I get to work with two amazing gentlemen who have been teaching me so many things, not only about theater, but about myself as a director, an actor and human being. Joe (Zingo) and Jim (Roberts) open the doors to such great opportunities for me to work with the newest released shows and collaborating with writers and composers with new works from all over. It’s my home away from home … well, it’s my home. I live in my house, but ACE and theater are my life.”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opens Friday, Jan. 11, and runs Fridays, Saturdays and select Sundays through Feb. 9.