indie women productions’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (or Bee, as I’m going to call it) presents a high energy combination of musical theatre, black comedy, improv, celebrity appearances, and good old-fashioned nerdiness.
Bee originally premiered on Broadway in 2005 (winning the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, as well as a nomination for Best Musical), and has previously been seen in Ottawa, most recently in February with Suzart’s production at Live! on Elgin. Loosely explained, the plot follows 6 offbeat middle schoolers (and 4 audience participants, but more on that in a moment) as they face their amusing insecurities and each other for a spot at the National Spelling Bee in Washington (sidenote: if you’ve ever seen the documentary Spellbound, then you’ll know that the National is pretty serious business). Overseeing the festivities are Rona Lisa Peretti (former winner of the Bee and Putnam County’s top real estate agent), Vice-Principal Douglas Panch (returning to the Bee after a 5-year hiatus following ‘the incident’), and Mitch Mahoney (fulfilling his community service by dispensing hugs and juice boxes to eliminated spellers).
At 11 years old, Bee isn’t young enough to be the hot new show nor is it old enough to have achieved classic status, but the various elements that set each production (and indeed, each performance) apart make it an ideal choice for a community theatre group. The not-so-subtle parody of suburban life in middle America is certainly resonant enough for an Ottawa audience, not to mention the improvised aspect. Before the show begins audience members can sign up to be participants (get there early if you want to, though), with 4 being randomly selected during the opening moments to come onstage. I’m not sure how much of the characters’ words are part of the script, but the audience spellers are completely at the mercy of the actors playing Peretti and Panch, in more ways than one: each speller (audience participant or character in the show), when they are called up to the microphone for their turn, is announced by an improvised tidbit about them (in the performance this review is based on, a woman wearing a scarf had ‘just received her first hickey’). Additionally, the usage of celebrity appearances with this show is something of a tradition (the original production, at the Tony Awards, featured guest celebrity speller Al Sharpton), and indie women have continued this, with opening night featuring CTV news anchor Michael O’Byrne, and the promise of celebrity spellers every night. indie women have taken a few liberties with the format – an intermission has been inserted, though in a sensible place; the songs are listed in the program though in most productions they aren’t, due to the flexible order in which they occur – but the spirit of Bee shines through.
The heart of this production, the actors’ commitment to its supreme silliness, is admirably represented here. The commitment to character occasionally takes precedence over vocal ability, but given that overall the score is weaker than the book and lyrics, this feels like a reasonable choice. There are still some lovely singers, particularly Christine Moran as Rona Lisa Peretti; the PepTides’ Dale Waterman as Mitch Mahoney; and Julia Redfern as neglected preteen Olive Ostrovsky. Acting shout-outs must go out to Jenn Cecil as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (precocious, lisping apple of her terrible gay dads’ eyes) and Evan Huus as Leaf Coneybear, whose plaintive expressions, innocent eyes, and general spaciness made me genuinely believe that he was home-schooled like his character.
The biggest weakness in this production is sound levels, with the band directly at the back of the stage frequently overpowering the singers despite the individual mics that all the main cast wears. Using the mics to balance out the vocals with the instrumentals makes sense, but the result is occasionally tinny singing and in a space the size of the Gladstone, the volume is a tad higher than perhaps it should be. There’s also choreography that, while suited to the musical theatre stage in general, doesn’t work quite as well with Bee – with the audience participants, local personalities, and topical references (as per Logainne’s Trump/Clinton rant), Bee is a show that blurs the line between reality and drama, and something as blatantly theatrical as choreographed dance pushes it a little too far in the dramatic direction for that balance to be maintained.
The sum of Bee’s parts adds up to a raucous, high energy show that changes every night, guaranteeing a fresh experience whenever you go. Whether or not you can spell correctly caternapes (as Michael O’Byrne did, much to everyone’s surprise), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a fun, mostly family-friendly experience that will throw jokes at you out of nowhere until you can’t help but laugh.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
an indie women production
By Rebecca Feldman
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Directed/Choreographed by Kodi Cannon
Musical Direction/Accompaniment by Wendy Berkelaar
Produced by C. Lee Bates and Joan Edwards Frommer
Stage Management/Costume Design by Ashley Cannon
Set & Scenic Design by C. Lee Bates
Sound Design by Mark Tye
Lighting Design by David Magladry
Props Design by Kodi Cannon and Ashley Cannon
Assistant Stage Manager: Marie-Helene Briere
Promotional Material: Tracy Noonan
Starring (in alphabetical order): Jenn Cecil, Evan Huus, Paul LeDuc, Christine Moran, Andrew Portolesi, Julia Redfern, Erika Seguin, Pascal Viens, Dale Waterman