Last night Children’s Theatre Company kicked off its 50th Season with Akeelah and the Bee, the first of five world premieres this season. Based on the 2006 movie, Akeelah and the Bee is the story of Akeelah Anderson an 11 year old living on the Southside of Chicago and her unlikely rise to the National Spelling Bee in Washington DC.
The show begins a few months after Akeelah’s (Johannah Easley) father was killed and the family is still trying to adjust to their new normal. The one thing helping Akeelah make it through this difficult time is the love of words and spelling her father instilled in her. After winning the school spelling bee the principal (Shawn Hamilton) introduces Akeelah to Dr. Larabee (James A. Williams) an educator and coach for spelling bee competitors. But due to her grades suffering Akeelah’s mom Gail (Aimee K. Bryant) isn’t interested in her daughter’s continued participation in the spelling bee. Akeelah takes matters into her own hands and goes behind her mom’s back and continues to prepare for the state spelling be with Dr. Larabee’s help. It isn’t until she qualifies for the National Spelling Bee in Washington DC, that her mom, brother Reggie (Nathan Barlow) and the rest of her friends and family become interested in helping her.
Having not seen the movie, I went in to Akeelah and the Bee knowing nothing more than the synopsis provided on the Children’s Theatre Company’s website. I knew the show was a about a girl named Akeelah and a spelling bee, but beyond that I wasn’t sure what to expect. Like other world premieres I’ve seen at CTC, this production doesn’t disappoint. By intermission I knew I liked what I saw on stage. But by the final bows, I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed the show. Not to mention how much I caught myself smiling when Akeelah would spell her word correctly and move on to the next round. I was engrossed in the show and lost track of the fact I was watching a performance, exactly what you want from your audience.
Cheryl L. West did a magnificent job adapting Doug Atchison’s original screenplay for the stage. The script is relevant and resonates with you regardless of where you come from and what obstacles you’ve faced to reach your dreams. The production team comprised of director Charles Randolph-Wright, scenic designer Alexander V. Nichols and costume designer Jessica Jahn have perfectly executed a show full of heart, laughs, colorful costumes and a unique set which brings Akeelah’s world to life.
With so much theatre in the Twin Cities it is easy to forget how lucky we are to have access to such extraordinary talent both on stage and backstage and how fortunate we are to witness world premieres of new work. Children’s Theatre Company has been known for decades as a premier theatre to bring new works to life for kids and this production of Akeelah and the Bee is no exception. But one thing is certain, if the other new works premiering at CTC this season are anything like Akeelah and the Bee this could be the best season yet.
Akeelah and the Bee is playing through October 11 on the UnitedHealth Group Stage. For more information on the show visit the Children’s Theatre Company’s website.