Wednesday, January 24, 2018

To Bee or Not To Bee: A Reaction to VA Repertory Theatre's 'Akeelah and the Bee'


I recently had the opportunity to see a live production of the play based on the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee. The theater articles on The Fangirl Initiative usually consist of videos or recordings of shows that are or have been on Broadway. I think it's time for a review of an actual production that isn't Broadway or a Broadway tour. So here you are!


There is a common saying suggesting that a person should never work with children or animals on stage. But this opinion is misleading. Something special breaks into the world when a truly talented child actor shines on stage or screen for the first time. When raw, unmarred talent bursts forth to stop even the most grizzled of humans in their tracks, it is a great thing. Of course, not every child actor is blessed with the compelling power to hold attention. Some merely have an ability that can be mined to produce something great. Some try, but fizzle out before they shine, lacking the quality so many in the performing world strive for.

In Virginia Repertory Theatre’s production of Akeelah and the Bee, I saw many young actors. Some offered a future of potential, others left much to be desired. To my surprise, the lead actress and title character gave what I considered the weakest performance. I am sure others took away different thoughts from her performance. Another young actor, playing opposite her as Dylan Chiu, gave a good performance, through his movements and other characterization choices. The other child actors also produced a valiant effort, and the adults were all talented, including actress Alana Smith, who was extremely convincing as the desperate mother she played. Overall, I enjoyed the performances presented, though some performers did massively affect scenes they were a part of, not always in a good way.

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The scenic design was pretty simple. A sky drop was placed behind two small apartment fronts, serving as the main character and her neighbor’s homes. The buildings were not constructed to realistic standards. The lack of detail in this design may have had to do with the fact that the play is based on a film of the same name, and the director may have wanted to convey a sense of childish whimsy, though the inclusion of gunshots over the sound system at the beginning of the show makes me doubt that. More likely, the set was simple because it was a repertory production, and other shows would have to move into the theater later.

The use of sound was interesting in this production. As I mentioned above, near the beginning of the show there were gunshots, though these sounded rather tinny to me, instead of frightening. I suppose the director may have wanted to avoid scaring children, who are this show's target audience. Sound was also used to portray the spelling bee judges in voiceover. No actors appeared on the stage in these parts, but the child actors interacted with the voices as if they were on a spelling stage, staring into the audience as if the judges were sitting among them. I thought this was a nice usage of sound.

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Lastly, I want to make mention of direction. I think the director did an all right job, but I have to wonder if the lead actress might have been more natural if the director had worked with her more. I know that sometimes people ignore notes, but the fast and hard-to-understand speech she gave could have been at least partially remedied with some careful coaching. One element that may have been a directorial decision, or may have been written in the script itself, was the inclusion of various children of the cast writing out the important events throughout the show on the stage itself, in large enough letters to be read by the audience. This was a fun addition to the show. At different points during the show, cast members took seats in the audience, as if watching the other actors really participate in different spelling bees. Most notably, this occurred when Akeelah took part in the national spelling bee, and her mother called out in aggravation about her daughter’s word being more difficult than another student's. I feel this was possibly a directorial decision that added an extra element to the spelling bee on stage.

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Overall, Akeelah and the Bee was an enjoyable, heartfelt show. I only wish that all of the actors in the production had matched each other more closely to make the most heart-wrenching elements, such as Akeelah’s fear of gunfire, resonate more with the audience. Still, the rest of the viewers seemed to enjoy the show, and overall, I found it to be a genuine production full of hope and possibility. All people have weaknesses, but like this show, they can become more than what is not perfect, and strive to be better.

Have you seen any theater shows lately?


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