Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Easy Street Productions)

spelling bee

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which played at Toronto’s Al Green Theatre, is a show with a lot of heart that is both frivolous and insightful

There’s something marvellous about small town spelling bees, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (which played the Al Green Theatre) captures it beautifully.

Spelling, in the format used for the bee, is a useless skill: nobody over the age of 14 will ever be asked to stand up and spell a word in front of an audience. On the list of weird things we do to children, it ranks quite high. But in this middle-school gymnatorium (“THIS IS A BULLY-FREE ZONE!”, shouts the poster on the wall), nothing could possibly matter more. The lives of these students revolve around dictionaries and all-night drill sessions–and the bee itself, for this afternoon, may as well be the Thunderdome. Ten kids enter. One kid leaves.

And the kids are excellent. The ensemble cast of nine, plus four (un?)lucky audience members, play with and off each other, and one of the treats of this show is the background business. Director Michael Rubenstein has the kids fidget, tease, stumble and gawp to just the right extent: there are goodies to catch should your eyes wander (especially during the show’s many transitions)–but when the script requires visual focus and emphasis, we can’t look away.

I could fawn over this cast for paragraphs and paragraphs. I’ll spare you the worst of it, but my guest and I agreed about four standouts in particular. John Chou’s Leaf Coneybear, a cape-wearing weirdo with a tremendously sweet disposition, is an awful lot of fun to watch, and his ability to project naivete and innocence turns several of the show’s dirtiest jokes up a notch or two. Colin Asuncion, as Mitch Mahoney, comes out of nowhere to steal half the show: he has a challenging part (including several of the show’s most complicated vocal tracks) which was written for an actor with a very different physicality, yet he pulls it off and adds a ton of value in the bargain.

However, the absolute highlight of the show–as it ought to be–is the relationship between Lori Ossip’s Olive Ostrovsky and Gabi Epstein’s Rona Lisa Perretti. Perretti, a former spelling champ herself, is hosting the bee, and sees something of herself in Olive–who finds herself torn between two distant parents and lacks the confidence of the other competitors.

Epstein plays Rona as everyone’s high school English teacher, all flowing skirts and tangled hair and golly-gee-aren’t-books-exciting pluck–a new approach to the role, but one which works very well. But best of all, the two of them, joined by Asuncion (doing double duty as Olive’s father), deliver the only true show-stopper of the evening, “The I Love You Song”. The effect of this number was so tremendous that the woman sitting next to me was weeping by the end–and she wasn’t the only one.

Gareth Crew’s lighting design conjures up several different settings with minimal resources; set designer Brandon Kleiman also delivers an awful lot of toys and goodies for the cast to play with, under and upon. The costume design was so minimal that it may have weakened some of the characters–Mikaela MacGillivray’s trying her best to convince us that Logainne Schwarzandgrubennierre is all-American, but without the Uncle Sam pantsuit, the effect doesn’t work as well–however, this approach did incorporate a few surprises, including one or two moments which elicited gasps from the audience.

And, as a whole, the audience ate this show up. Okay, okay, there’s the cringe-factor of making audience volunteers spell “Czechoslovakia”  and “Desiccate”, and there’s the inherent humour in grown-ups pulling on Mary-Janes and superhero capes to play twelve-year-olds, but this show also has a lot of heart. It somehow manages the trifecta of being frivolous, insightful and accessible, and this production’s new approaches to several of the roles and numbers are, on the whole, improvements.

An excellent first production from Easy Street; can’t wait for the next one!


Poster image provided by the company.