Sunday, September 6, 2015

"Akeelah and the Bee" at Children's Theatre Company

Children's Theatre Company opens their 50th season with an adaptation of the 2006 movie Akeelah and the Bee, about an 11-year-old girl from a poor neighborhood who discovers her power and self-worth through competing in Spelling Bees. Written by Cheryl L. West, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, and featuring a fantastic local cast, the production will travel to Washington DC after its debut at CTC, with the possibility of continuing on after that. But first, we get to enjoy it here in Minnesota. This heart-warming and inspirational story has been brought to life on the CTC stage with energy, warmth, humor, and heart.

We meet Akeelah, who lives with her mother and older brother, soon after the death of her father in a neighborhood shooting. Akeelah's mother is busy trying to make ends meet and doesn't have time for Akeelah's interest in spelling. Reggie is unemployed and tempted by a life of crime to provide for his family, which includes a new baby. A good student, Akeelah is reluctant to participate in the Bee because of the teasing she receives from her classmates, but her love for spelling, a special connection she shared with her dad, wins out. She trains with the curmudgeonly Dr. Larabee and, like all good teacher/student relationships, she teaches him as much as he teaches her. But to win at the national level Akeelah needs the help of her friends and everyone in her community. They all rally behind her, encourage her, and help her train for the Bee. Her success means success for all of them.

my favorite moment of the Bee (photo by Jeff Wheeler)
Newcomer Johanna Easley portrays Akeelah, and she's a natural actor, easily conveying Akeelah's spunk, sadness, and determination to succeed (and she very likely could win a few Spelling Bees with all of the words she's learned for this part!). She and the other talented youngsters, including the delightful Zaria Graham as Akeelah's fashion- and fun-loving friend, are surrounded by a veritable Who's Who of Twin Cities talent, including the magnificent James A. Williams as Dr. Larabee, Aimee K. Bryant as Akeelah's mother, homegrown talent Nathan Barlow (he trained at CTC as a kid and the U of M/Guthrie BFA program as a young adult) as Reggie, Darius Dotch pulling double duty as the neighborhood gangster and the host of the Bee, and Greta Oglesby and Shawn Hamilton, bringing much heart and soul to the proceedings. The cool set design by Alexander V. Nichols features four rotating two-story metal cells. They represent houses, shops, and, when turned to reveal shelves full of books, Dr. Larabee's library.

Akeelah and the Bee may not be an original story (there are countless variations of the underdog training for and winning at a big competition, and we've seen the odd and delightful quirkiness that is the Spelling Bee onstage before in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), but it's charmingly told and speaks to the power of family, community, education, and a common goal. It's a story worth sharing and is sure to encourage young people to follow their dreams, and maybe not-so-young people as well. Akeelah and the Bee continues through October 11.