Music Theatre of Denton packed houses for its last show, the cheeky Avenue Q.
The local music theater company could have chosen to put on the brakes for the next production. But instead, the company stayed in the same gear — irreverent comedy that tests the comfort zones of its audience, then wins it over with heart, character and charm.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is musical theater’s Island of Misfit Toys. A roster of smart and determined children make their bid for the county spelling bee. Before the last speller is standing — proud and geeky — each contestant has had to bear his or her deepest insecurities.
The comedy opens Friday.
Putnam County digs up all the awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence — the really embarrassing stuff that we all discover in middle school — and sets it to a pretty score. The contenders are a reminder of familiar idiosyncrasies: Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre is a political junkie with a lisp; Marcy Park is a frustrated perfectionist, and Chip Toletino grapples with his newfound and surprising manhood.
The musical is based on a show titled C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, an improvisational play by Rebecca Feldman that was first performed by The Farm, a New York-based improvisational comedy company. William Finn and Rachel Shienkin developed the play into a short musical.
The show was nominated for six Tony Awards after it premiered on Broadway in 2005.
The musical was enough to tease its Denton director out of her usual summer sabbatical.
“Actually, it was on my bucket list,” director Terri Hagar Scherer said. “I normally don’t direct during the summer, and now with grandchildren here from England, but when Donna called to ask me if I’d consider directing, I asked what show. When she told me it was this show, I was like: ‘No, don’t tell me it’s that one!’ I’ve seen it on Broadway and have loved it ever since.”
Scherer is a founding member of the Runway Theatre in Grapevine and has directed at the Greater Lewisville Community Theatre.
“I’ve never worked in Denton,” Scherer said.
She has, however, worked with some of the founding members of Denton’s theater scene. Years ago, Scherer directed shows produced by Texas Toast, a theatrical fundraising company launched by Denton theater volunteer and writer Donna Trammell and operated by Frank and Betty Ann Barrow. Scherer spent 30 years teaching children in dance and theater, and said the slings and arrows suffered by Putnam County’s spellers are familiar.
“We opened a natural foods store in Grapevine in 1977, and I wasn’t a restaurant person. So we boarded up the back porch of the store and I started teaching dance,” Scherer said. “I watched kids grow up in that studio. I had them sometimes as young as 5 and taught them until they were 15, 16 and 17. I understand how their needs change.”
The contestants each have what Scherer called “a light bulb moment.”
“We get to see them in middle school, and then during the epilogue, we get to see the adult they become. It’s a sweet show. You laugh and laugh and laugh, and then you sort of go, ‘Awwwwwww,’” she said.
Scherer isn’t the only newcomer to the Campus Theatre stage in Putnam County. Most of the performers are making their local debut in the show, and musical director Oscar Seung takes up his first Music Theatre of Denton baton.
“I auditioned for Avenue Q, but I couldn’t make my schedule work with the rehearsal schedule,” said Seung, a private Denton music teacher, conductor and opera singer. “I was so impressed with MTD for doing Avenue Q, though, that I told them I’d be happy to help out any way I could. I’ve administered a nonprofit, too. I just really wanted to be part of what’s going on here.”
What’s going on? Seung said Music Theatre of Denton isn’t afraid of a little risk.
“I just think the company keeps defying expectations,” he said. “I mean, look at this show. Just the title. It’s really long and it makes you wonder what it’s all about. This show is all about the music. It has so much heart, so much warmth. You don’t expect these soaring melodies or these beautiful harmonies in a show with a title like this.”
Both Scherer and Seung said the musical numbers are easy on the ears, but hard on the vocalists.
“It’s incredibly challenging,” Seung said. “We’re going to sing the parts, too. A lot of companies in North Texas, only [the melody line] is sung. When I decided to do this show, I knew we were going to do all the parts. I told the cast, ‘We’re doing the parts. Learn them.’ This score has to be rich and full.”
Music Theatre of Denton is presenting Putnam County in two acts, though it runs only 90 minutes. Because the show includes some profane and vulgar language and sexual references, the musical is rated PG, Scherer said.
Seung said the musical fits in with the company’s vision to produce theater and fine music. It might not be Gilbert & Sullivan, but it isn’t far from the sophistication of light opera.
Seung recruited two cellists, a saxophone player, a pianist and keyboardist, percussionist, clarinetist, flutist, oboeist and saxophonist to join him in the orchestra pit.
“It’s not pop, it’s not rock. It’s very unvconventional,” Seung said. “That’s what I like about it. It goes back to expectations. The music defies all your expectations. But it’s very good stuff. Olive’s song [‘The I Love You Song’] gets me every time. I pretty much can’t look at the actors.”
The music runs through next weekend.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
What: Music Theatre of Denton presents the musical comedy by William Finn and Rachel Shienkin.
When: 7:30 p.m. this Friday and Saturday and July 13-14; 2 p.m. Sunday and July 15
Where: The Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.
Details: For mature audiences. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for ages 62 and older, $10 for students. For tickets, call 940-382-1915 or visit www.campustheatre.com/tickets.shtml.
On the Web: www.musictheatreofdenton.com