The 29th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee charms by DREW ROWSOME 14 November 2017
by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Scott Gorman
Life is random and unfair
Life is pandemonium
On the second cold night of the year, Hart House theatre was filled with warmth and laughter as we participated in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. While not quite P-A-N-D-E-M-O-N-I-U-M, this Spelling Bee is delightfully entertaining and blessed with a joie de vivre that overflows the stage, as does the cast, to utterly charm.
Betraying its roots as a improvisational comedy event, the plot is somewhat slapped together (there are many unexplained surrealities) but with ridiculously comic results. The satire of spelling bees, competitions and reality television is pointed but mostly gentle. Each contestant - including four plucked from the audience to add a layer of improvisation and danger - has an elaborate back story, a semi-secret tragic flaw, and a determination to win. They sing and dance their way to defeat in the spelling bee, but triumph over their personal problems in the process of enduring the cut-throat rivalries.
The music and lyrics by William Finn (Elegies, Falsettos) are brisk, clever and pointed, if not memorable out of context, and the energy of the cast sells each one to create an emotional whole. The character-driven choreography of Sabrina Hooper also aids in pumping up the vitality and empathetic engagement. And director Cory Doran (Boeing Boeing, The Importance of Being Earnest) keeps the action bouncing along with the sleight of hand required only occasionally in evidence. All of the cast plays double duty in flashbacks and fantasy sequences - a visit from Jesus, a possible alien invasion, overbearing gay fathers - that, created out of only light and performance, have to be overly delineated to maintain a semblance of coherence. This Spelling Bee moves and stings quickly so that the comedy outweighs the melancholy at the heart of these troubled - but aren't we all? - souls.
When one finds that one is rooting for all the contestants, it shows that the cast is functioning as a unit and exhibiting an uniform strength. Each contestant gets a stand-out moment - Braelyn Guppy's brittle exterior cracking, Erin Humphrey's political outburst, Vanessa Campbell's subtle heartbreak behind a beaming smile - with John Walmsley having the most uproarious and risqué fun with "My Unfortunate Erection," complete with slapstick and sight gag. It's not just the contestants who get to shine, Art Carlson as the judge recovering from an "incident" five years ago is gleefully snide, and Amy Swift as the host and former Putnam County Spelling Bee champion, wields her sterling soprano voice and barely-repressed sexual heat in a vivacious but vain attempt to keep the bee in business.
The "Official Comfort Counselor," an ex-convict fulfilling his community service by dispensing juice boxes to the losers and/or hauling them off stage, is embodied by the strong-voiced and physically imposing Carson Betz. Tatted and skeptical, his slow succumbing to the peculiar charms of the contestants is remarkably heartwarming without too much saccharine. The most flamboyant/showy roles are also designed to demonstrate the dangers of dogma, and Kevin Forster (The Buddy Holly Story, 7 Stories) and Hugh Ritchie (The Mousetrap, West Side Story, Into the Woods) make the most of their roles while still leaving some scenery unchewed.
Forster scampers about as an ADD whirlwind, the character desperate for attention, Forster effortlessly commanding attention. It is a witty evocation of the blithely innocent and strange and his wide-eyed whirling didn't leave a dry eye in the house when he does, sort-of but not really, emerge semi-victorious. Ritchie has a difficult role, having to move from arrogance and attitude to a slow realization that he is human and capable of love. His eyes are often hidden under goggles but his gift for physical comedy and dance, expresses the shifting emotions exquisitely, and when he melts, so does the audience.
Diverting and deliberately slight, a slightness achieved with much skill and dedication, The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee makes the arrival of winter a lot less chilling, random and unfair.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues until Sat, Nov 25 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle. harthouse.ca