Saturday, October 13, 2007

From Toledo to Putnam County

As I have previously done with Tonye Patano and Caroline Stefanie Clay, yesterday morning I interviewed (by telephone) an actor who will be performing in a play at the National Theatre in Washington. In this case, the actor was Kevin Smith Kirkwood, who is -- like me -- the product of eight years of Jesuit education. (He attended St. John's Jesuit High School in Toledo and Fordham University in the Bronx, while I attended Marquette University High School in Milwaukee and Georgetown University in Washington.) So we immediately had something in common to drive the conversation.

What follows is the article, based on our interview, which I have submitted to The Metro Herald for publication in next week's issue. The play Kevin is performing in, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, opens in Washington on October 23.

From Toledo to Putnam County:
An Actor’s Journey
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

(WASHINGTON) --- A Catholic priest was the catalyst that led Kevin Smith Kirkwood from Toledo, Ohio, to the Broadway stage and, this month, to the National Theatre in Washington in a Tony Award®-winning musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Arriving as a new student at St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, Kirkwood “had never done a play.” Then the late Father Ron Torina, S.J., persuaded the freshman to join the chorus of Hello, Dolly!, and his life has not been the same since.

Speaking to The Metro Herald by telephone from Detroit, where “Spelling Bee” is on tour, Kirkwood said that “the Jesuits were instrumental in getting me into the theatre.” Father Torina, he explained, “was the one who pointed me in the direction of New York and said I should consider theatre as a career.” (Kirkwood also attended a Jesuit college, Fordham University, which landed him in New York City.)

“I give [Father Torina] all the credit for being in this business at all,” Kirkwood said, adding with a chuckle: “I wanted to be a lawyer.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, in which Kirkwood plays Mitch Mahoney, was his Broadway debut, but the musical theatre veteran already had several major productions under his belt, including a European tour of Jesus Christ Superstar and a national tour of Godspell.

Kirkwood has also appeared at the Weathervane Theatre in New Hampshire, the Actor’s Playhouse in Miami, and the Engeman Theatre on Long Island. “Spelling Bee” marks his first appearance in Washington.

For those unfamiliar with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Kirkwood offered this summary: “The show takes place at a spelling bee – the 25th anniversary, of course -- and it's a qualifying round for nationals. There are six spellers who are regular characters,” played by professional actors. There are also four volunteers from the audience, which “makes things more spontaneous.”

“That's a big selling point for the show,” Kirkwood noted. “Thirty minutes before the show, members of the audience can sign up. It gives the audience someone to root for.” The audience participation also, he said, “keeps it fun and fresh for us every night.”

The character he plays, Kirkwood said, “is a young, African-American, urban guy who's probably in his early 20s. He’s definitely an adult, and he comes from a different side of the tracks than all of the spellers” in the show. Mitch, he said, “brings a different perspective on life to the Bee. He probably has had some issues with the law and he comes with a chip on his shoulder; but he also grows up and learns some things about himself over the course of the show.”

With regard to Mitch and the others, he continued, “all of the characters are archetypes; it would be easy to slip into stereotypes. I know guys like Mitch. I knew them growing up in Toledo. I portray him with as much humanity as I can, but he has an edge to him.”

Kirkwood added, for emphasis: “I'm serious when I say I know this guy. He's definitely real to me and he has a definite [character] arc throughout the show.”

Over the course of the play, he said, “we learn about the lives of the six characters through flashbacks and vignettes, and through great quirky melodies by William Finn.”

Asked if he had any final words for Metro Herald readers, Kirkwood replied;

“The show has something in it for everyone. It has a lot of heart that you sometimes don't expect because it's so funny. Definitely prepare to laugh.”

“Spelling Bee” is directed by James Lapine, the Tony Award® and Pulitzer Prize-winner (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods) who also directed the Broadway production. The musical, conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with additional material written by Jay Reiss, features music and lyrics by Tony Award®-winner William Finn (Falsettos, Elegies, A New Brain) and a Tony Award®-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin. “Spelling Bee” features scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Jennifer Caprio, lighting design by Natasha Katz, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier and choreography by Dan Knechtges.

In addition to Kevin Smith Kirkwood, the cast includes Katie Boren, James Kall, Andew Keenan-Bolger, Justin Keyes, Vanessa Ray, Eric Roediger, Dana Steingold, and Sally Wilfert.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opens at the National Theatre on October 23 and runs through November 4. Tickets are priced $41.50 to $86.50, with a limited number of premium seats at $151.50 (all plus applicable service charges). Tickets are available through Telecharge at (800) 447-7400 and online at Tickets are also available at The National Theatre box office. For groups of 20 or more, call (866) 276-2947. For additional information, call (202) 628-6161 or visit


(Photo of Kevin Smith Kirkwood as Mitch Mahoney by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the National Theatre)

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