Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Marianne Williamson’s quote is a guiding light in Flint Youth Theatre’s current offering of Akeelah and the Bee. Adapted from the screenplay by Cheryl L. West and directed by B. Alex Reed, this is a wonderfully touching story of heartbreak, courage, community and triumph.
Most are familiar with the film version set in Los Angeles, and the story hasn’t changed here. However, West has changed the setting to a more confined Chicago neighborhood. Here danger is prevalent, crime invades, and yet neighbors look out for everyone, even a youngster destined for the national stage.
As Akeelah, Alexis Crochran brings this young genius to life moving her through emotions from fear to anger to defensiveness and finally gratitude and love. And she takes us right along with her; we feel her grief over her father’s murder, her distress when classmates bully her for being “smart”, her defensive lashing out when others try to help, and her frustration at trying to explain her goal of spelling champion to her mother.
As Dr. Larabee, Kenn Hopkins Jr. is standoffish but intrigued in his offer to help Akeelah prepare for the State Spelling Bee. Still we get the impression that he is genuinely interested in this girl, even when he nearly breaks her training off as his own grief intrudes.
Akeelah’s mother, played by Curr’esha Beatty, is an overworked but devoted woman determined to see that her kids are safe and well. Even though she doesn’t always understand her daughter, she is ultimately her staunchest supporter.
There are a lot of kids in this show and that’s going to be attractive to young audiences. Besides the spelling bee contestants, there are neighborhood youngsters, bullies, and gang members all living in Akeelah’s neighborhood.
Giovanni Moore III interprets her brother Reggie with gusto as he moves from delinquency to fatherhood to citizen student. Little Georgia (Yasmine Searcy) is adorable as Akeelah’s best friend, and Safiyah El-Ganainy does a stiffly prim job with Dylan, Akeelah’s main spelling rival.
Many wonderful performances were in evidence Saturday, but we’ll just highlight a few: Jesse Glenn plays two opposing roles equally well as he is both Principal Welch and Drunk Willie. Fortunately he has time between scenes to effect these changes; Madelyn Porter is gregarious in her flamboyant outfits as the endearing neighborhood watcher, Batty Ruth; Tomoko Miller made us all grit our teeth as Dylan’s tyrannical mother fiercely browbeating her daughter into winning.
The sets are handled with extreme fluidity allowing one scene to merge easily into the next. Costumes are well done and define their wearers very nicely. There is a background soundtrack that interfered with vocal projection a few times, but only in the beginning.
This production is presented in the Bower Theatre and uses much of the house as entrances and exits. So expect to see many of the players close up as they pass by. The show runs about two hours and does include one intermission.
We won’t tell you how it ends, but it’s safe to say you will be cheering and feeling warm all over as this community comes together for one of their own.
Akeelah and the Bee continues at Flint Youth Theatre through February 25. For more information and tickets contact the box office at 810-237-7333 or online at http://www.theFYT.org