Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Hart House Theatre)

Photo of Erin Humpfrey, Vanessa Campbell, Braelyn Guppy, Amy Swift, Hugh Ritchie, Kevin Forster, John Wamsley, Hart House Theatre’s rendition of this campy musical is “imaginative” and “unique”, on stage in Toronto

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is now in session at the Hart House Theatre and after personally seeing four productions of this campy musical comedy in my lifetime, I’ve decided that Hart House’s rendition is by far the most imaginative and unique I’ve ever seen.

The show gets off to a rousing start when the spelling bee contestants pour out onto the stage with rainbows and sunshine just blasting out of their ears. These kids want to win the Bee more than anything in this world and even though the six contestants are played by 20-somethings, their child-like energy and pureness of heart is extremely apparent.

Although I’ve seen this show several times, this production feels fresh to me. It’s bold, noisy and chock full of wonderful surprises like a golden-shoed kick line done on hands and knees or a funky hip hop dance break in the middle of Logan Schwartzandgrubenniere (Erin Humphry)’s speech to America.

William Barfee (Hugh Ritchie), who’s normally depicted as a nerd in the most classic sense has a bit of a steampunk-rebel vibe to him in this version which is something I’ve never seen before.

There are a lot of interesting twists like this throughout the show such as when Jesus appears in one of the speller’s prayers looking like he just walked off the set of Hair (and clearly high on more than just Godly vibes) or hippie kid Leaf Coneybear’s (Kevin Forster) strange and kinda funny affection for Mitch, the ex-con comfort counselor.

It’s the care and attention to detail by director Cory Doran that makes this production special for me. If I looked away for even a second, I would surely miss something clever.

The vocals are as solid as can be and honestly sound pretty close to the original cast recording. Amy Swift, as Rona Peretti, delivers soaring operatic lines with gusto and Vanessa Campbell, as the eternally optimistic Olive Ostrovsky, hits us all in the gut with her “I Love You Song” full of emotion and raw vocal power.

In the beginning of the show, four audience members are called up to the stage (who agreed to it ahead of time, I assume) to spell along side the cast in the competition. This aspect of the show is handled very well in my opinion. I like how they’re just “thrown in” and expected to follow all of the complicated choreography without any guidance or hand holding from the cast (which was the case in other productions I’ve seen). It’s a bit of schaudenfraude on my part, but hey…it’s funny.

At the end of the show I had a huge smile on my face, and when I looked around, I could see that I was not alone in my giddiness. The cast and crew of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee truly give it their all and then some. To me, this rendition of what is normally considered to be a “small scale musical” truly goes above and beyond, golden shoes and all.

Details:

Photo of Hugh Ritchie, Kevin Forster, John Wamsley, Amy Swift, Braelyn Guppy, Erin Humphry and Vanessa Campbell by Scott Gorman.

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