Coming-of-age musical teaches more about life than simply winning and losing
De’Lon Grant has always wanted to work at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
Now the 27-year-old, Providence-born and Boston-based actor is realizing his goal in the company’s season-opening production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
In fact, the Boston Conservatory and University of Michigan graduate (M.A. in musical theatre and B.F.A. in acting respectively) is fulfilling that desire three-fold. Grant is playing comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, one of the two gay dads of speller Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre and the unseen father (except in an imagined musical number) of fellow finalist Olive Ostrovsky. Recently he spoke to the Bay State Banner about his roles, the musical and his own comfort level in the Boston theater community.
Grant said that one of his challenges was making the three roles different.
He understandably had the most to say about Mahoney, the largest of the three parts. Doing community service as the comfort counselor, Mahoney hands a juice box to contestants misspelling a word and gives each one a comforting hug before escorting them out of the bee. Eventually the comfort counselor has the opportunity in a memorable monologue to reflect on the difficult lessons about life — especially that life can be unfair — which the competition sometimes underscores.
Where some actors might look at Mahoney as only a character, Grant saw him as a spectator as well. “I look at him as a kind of audience member watching what is going on,” he explains.
As such, he identified with “the great universality of what the kids are trying to achieve (as spellers and children)” and “especially the anxiety (of the bee ).”
Grant gave the show high marks for its sensitivity. “There’s something heartfelt about the way the show looks at the characters,” he maintained.
Thinking at times about the counselor’s function in the show, he chose “to have Mitch actively watch them (the spellers).”
“He has to see all that’s going on,” Grant explained. “Otherwise, he just seems like he’s coming up to them randomly.”
Grant himself recalled being “the kid that was very much into running around outside.” He even played football in junior high. But then he discovered theater and found his niche.
The thoughtful performer has also worked out his approach to the two father roles. Grant saw his dad character as “the more nurturing parent.” He regarded the other parent, Carl, as “more the pusher.” By contrast, he looked at Olive’s unseen father and her attempt to cope with absentee parents in “The I Love You Song” with sadness.
“That scene breaks my heart,” he admitted. “My heart breaks for her.”
Declaring that the Hub community “has really embraced me,” the busy performer has worked on Boston stages for the last four years and now has roles in “St. Joan” and other shows at Wheelock Family Theatre and “Dessa Rose” at New Repertory Theatre.
Grant welcomed the “new companies getting started” in Boston and praised the area’s talent. “It’s a small community (compared to New York’s),” he observed, “but there’s a lot of opportunity.”
Grant called last season’s “Harriet Jacobs” with Underground Railway Theatre “one of those things that really come together with the audience” and “a cathartic experience.”
Next spring he hopes to reach a different catharsis playing two roles in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of the rarely staged “Cymbeline.”
Is the Lyric Stage version of “Spelling Bee” such a catharsis?
Certainly the performance that this critic saw came together with its audience. A coming-of-age musical, “Spelling Bee” serves as a kind of rite of passage in which all of the pivotal six spellers learn as much about cooperation, understanding, friendship and even love as they do about winning and losing a competition.
If composer William Finn’s score proves winningly tuneful if not as well-developed as his inspired earlier one for “Falsettos,” the standout feature here is Rachel Sheinkin’s insightful book, which won a Tony Award. Lyric guest director and choreographer Stephen Terrell does full justice to the wit and wisdom of the revelations about the spellers and the evolution of the bee itself. The ensemble “Pandemonium” and the spirited solo moves of Michael Borges as different drummer Leaf Coneybear are dance standouts.
Especially satisfying about the Lyric edition of the music is the uniform excellence of the performances. Besides Borges’ touching Coneybear, look for smartly understated frustration for over-achieving from Lisa Yuen as Marcy Park and hilarious indignation from Sam Simahk as Chip Tolentino in a sung lament about an inopportune erection. Lexie Fennell Frare combines convincing sophistication and moving vulnerability as pressured Logainne. Daniel Vito Siefring pushes the envelope of spelling etiquette as magic foot word Merlin William Barfee. Krista Buccellato is so affecting as Olive that audience adults may vie to replace her no-show parents.
The adult roles are equally strong. DeLon Grant endows comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney with genuine warmth. Kerri Jill Garbis resonantly shares the spellers’ energy and enthusiasm. Will McGarrahan has the right quirkiness. Even the volunteer adults rise to the occasion as spellers with alternately easy and difficult words.
The Lyric Stage “Spelling Bee” is so well spoken, sung and danced that previously resistant theatergoers should now embrace its charms.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through October 2. 617-585-4678 or lyricstage.com.