How Do You Spell F-U-N-N-Y?
If you’ve never seen an actual spelling bee, especially those leading to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the U.S., then you probably won’t ‘get’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, now playing at London’s Grand Theatre. In Canada, we don’t take our spelling bees quite as seriously and the competitions don’t have the same exposure as in the U.S.
So you might think that the characters in the hilarious musical are just silly caricatures. They aren’t. A check on You Tube will show you that spelling bee competitors have all the same quirks, foibles and eccentricities that are highlighted in this musical.
Credit goes to the writers for capturing the oddities of spelling bees, creating a parody without being cruel, developing it from a comedy sketch into a very funny musical.
The result is a hilarious show, well directed and well cast, moving from one laugh-out-loud moment to the next.
Spelling Bee (the musical) is also a great vehicle for allowing local content and even some improv. The opening night audience loved the home-grown humour – we’re told that the superintendent of schools couldn’t make it because he had fallen into a pot hole on Wharncliffe Road.
To round out the number of competitors in the spelling bee, audience members are called up on stage to join the six spellers. When I’ve seen Spelling Bee in the past, audience members were approached as potential contestants when they entered the theatre. At the Grand they seemed a little too rehearsed, as if they had had more than a few minutes warning.
Rona Lisa Perretti (Stephanie Roth) is a real estate broker and former spelling bee winner who is obviously passionate about organizing the bee every year. At her side is Vice-Principal Douglas Panch (Andrew Scanlon). The two of them provide much of the humour in act one. She calls out the names of the spellers and then tells the audience a little bit about the person. For example, when one of the audience participants came to the microphone wearing black pants and a black and white striped sweater, Rona Lisa introduced her, and sweetly added “She is looking forward to the day when her favourite styles come out in colour.” Then the Vice Principal offers the definitions of the words to be spelled and uses the word in a sentence, which are hilarious.
Lee Siegel is good as Mitch Mahony, the comfort counsellor, who provides a juice box and a hug to each competitor who misspells a word and has to leave the bee. Mitch is putting in his mandatory community service hours. Siegel’s rich voice is especially moving when he switches roles to be the father of a lonely competitor, joined by Roth’s beautiful soprano as the mother.
The Grand is to be congratulated for bringing back some of its own High School Project alumni. Callendra Dendias, Natalia Gracious and Trevor Patt, who play Logainne Schwatzandgrubelnniere, Marcy Park and William Barfee respectively, were on the Grand’s stage as secondary students and have now returned as professionals.
Josh Blackstock as Chip Tolentino has fun throwing confections into the audience. Jeremy Crittenden as Leaf Coneybear gives us a delightful look at the homeschooled kid from the big family and Kaitlin Lane as Olive Ostrovsky is especially good with comedic timing, but also tugs the heartstrings as the neglected child in the show’s sombre moment.
Each of the six talented young actors are convincing as grade schoolers. They have lovingly captured all the idiosyncrasies of the serious spelling bee competitors, making this a gentle but very funny lampoon.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at the Grand Theatre, London until April 12. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593 or visit www.grandtheatre.com.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music & lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Additional material by Jay Reiss
Directed and Choreographed by Darcy Evans
Musical direction by Anthony Bastianon
Performed by Josh Blackstock, Jeremy Crittenden, Callandra Dendias, Natalia Gracious, Kaitlin Lane, Trevor Patt, Stephanie Roth, Andrew Scanlon, Lee Siegel
Grand Theatre, London
March 18 to April 12, 2014
Reviewed by Mary Alderson