Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Greatest Theater Experience Of My Life

I’d been looking forward to seeing “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” for months. I made sure to call and get an aisle seat up in the balcony, so that I could enjoy myself with a little more comfort. Weeks of anticipation, until finally the night of the show arrived. No matter how bad work was today, I was ready to enjoy myself.

I read last week that a few audience members are selected before each performance to be contestants in the “bee.” I couldn’t pass up a chance on that, so I made sure to get to the theater early enough to sign up. There were a few short preliminary interviews. I gave my name, occupation, a little bit of background info. Then the waiting began.

Thirty minutes of waiting, before the participants are announced. Thirty minutes of heart palpitations. Thirty minutes of sweating. Throat constricting. I have flashbacks to those uncomfortable afternoons before callbacks and cast lists were posted. I try to read my book, but find my eyes running over the same half-page about ten times. I can’t focus. I’m sweating. I’m thirsty. I grab a bottle of water. I tell myself that it’s no big deal and I probably won’t get picked out of the dozens that sign up.

Finally—finally!—the theater workers return to the “Spelling Bee Sign-in” booth to announce the selected contestants. A bearded man. A middle-aged paunchy guy. A young boy of about ten. And? AND?

A woman in her fifties. Not me.

I’m disappointed. Well, disappointed AND a little relieved. It would have been an incredible experience, but at least the interminable waiting was over. I take the elevator up to my seats in the upper gallery. I joke in the elevator with another passed-over patron that they must have realized my genius and didn’t want a ringer in the show. She said she was an English teacher, so obviously they stayed away from her. We two spelling heavyweights got off at our respective floors and made our way inside to relax and enjoy the show.

I showed the usher my ticket and was about to turn and climb the stairs to my seat, when a female voice behind me said, “Excuse me, sir.” I turned.

“Are you here by yourself?” I said I was. “Well then, I have an upgraded ticket for you, if you like.” She handed me the ticket and told me to go back down three floors in the elevator and head toward the front of the floor section.

I looked down at my new ticket. “Orchestra Pit Center, Row B.”

As in, SECOND ROW CENTER. Seventh seat in, only a couple chairs left of dead center.

I get to the row and freak out. I was reach-out-and-touch-the-actors close. And the seats were comfy, with non-constricting armrests and plenty of legroom.

I settle in, and begin watching the show. What a hilarious show. If you’ve never seen or heard “Spelling Bee,” I highly highly recommend it. It was brilliant, and the actors in this production were amazing. I wish I could recount for you every moment, but suffice to say, less than halfway into it, I was laughing so hard that I was wiping tears from my eyes for several minutes.

A few particular moments:
--There is a LOT of interaction between the actors and the audience. I love that. The actors sold it so well, picking out audience members to be their “parents.”
--There were several Houston-specific jokes throughout the show. I’m sure they do that for every stop, but it was still fun to hear—the theatrical equivalent of a rock band saying they always love coming back to *INSERT CITY HERE*.
--The song “M.U.E.” (if you’re familiar with the show, you know which one I mean) was even more hilarious than I expected. Chip came out with the box of snacks strapped around his neck and slung low, and started in with his dialogue about having to sell snacks. Then he said something like, “Screw it,” and started walking up and down the aisles, singing the song and angrily tossing the candy and other snacks into the crowd without really looking. The whole lower section was assaulted by junk food for the entire number. There were several hip thrusts and wagging around of the box. The climax of the song involved holding up a bag of popcorn in each outstretched hand and popping them over the front row. We had white popcorn rained down on us. Yes.
--The audience member participants were awesome. The cast interacted with them well, and included them in some of the choreography. The woman was out first, and then the next few rounds with the AMPs were easy words like “jihad” and “Mexicans” (definition: a label given by Texans to anyone from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, South America, Spain, and/or Alaska). These were some of the words that trigger the song, “Pandemonium.” Then, after a few more tough rounds, the two adult guys were gone, and only the boy was left. They gave him an impossible word, and to the astonishment of all (including the boy!), he spelled it right. Chaos ensued. The cast of spellers was visibly shocked and amused. The “vice principal” overseeing the “bee” was flabbergasted. The crowd went wild. Then, the VP said, “Um, okay, well, Ryan, come back to the microphone and try it again.” The boy obediently came back to the microphone and started spelling the word again. “NO, no, another word, hang on.” The audience was rolling on the floor. An even more impossible word was chosen, and the boy finally misspelled it; after about 3 letters, the relieved VP cut him off, saying, “No, it starts with X, thanks for playing!” At this point in the show, the “care counselor Mitch Mahoney” sang his version of the “goodbye” song that starts, “My friend, you will be missed/But now go with dignity/This ends, but first on our list/You can go with pride…” And you could tell that the whole cast sang this one sincerely. The boy got a long ovation as he left the stage.

One particularly bizarre event: The character playing William Barfee seemed to physically transform about halfway through the show. After the song “Magic Foot,” an entirely different William came back on stage. This new (red-headed) William finished the show, and then after the curtain call, the actor playing the vice principal announced that the original “William,” Eric Roediger, blew out his knee at the end of “Magic Foot,” and the understudy, Jeffrey James Binney, took over the rest of the show. He was fantastic, and very aptly carried the rest of the show. Even with the pressure of filling in for one of the most important characters of the show (SPOILER ALERT—he wins the bee!), Binney pulled it off with panache. So, well done him!

Amazing show. Just so much fun. BUT the fun didn’t end there.

At the end of the show, the “Vice Principal” announced that they were taking donations and selling memorabilia for donations to the Broadway Cares organization, which works to fight AIDS. Well, the show ended, and I went up to the swag booth to get a souvenir, but they were closed up. I went downstairs, and there were cast members at the doors with buckets. “Mitch Mahoney” was giving away hugs and juiceboxes for any donation. (Of course, I did.) And there was Andrew Keenan-Bolger (“Leif Coneybear”), holding a bucket and two broken pieces of plywood—one of the boards that “Marcy Park” karate-kicked in half. The two pieces were each autographed by the cast, with little hand-drawn pictures. I told Andrew how great he was and what a great time I had. I think I also gave him the short version of the “Upper Gallery to Orchestra Pit” story, which he graciously listened to and replied, “Wow, that’s awesome.” Then I asked about the boards, and procured one for a donation to the fund.

So there’s my amazing night, the best night at the theater I’ve ever had. A second row ticket, an amazing show, getting a hug and a few minutes to talk to some cast members, and an autographed show prop. I’m still reeling. Unbelievable.

[Thank you, Father God, for such an amazing time. Your goodness to me knows no bounds.]

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