Presented by Blue Canoe Productions and held in The Grand Theatre until Jan 21, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, directed by Queen’s alum Maddy Scovil, is a funny, heartwarming love letter to prepubescence.
The musical comedy tells the story of six kids on the verge of adolescence competing in a spelling bee. Each one of them tackles some of the different challenges of growing up, including disappointing parents, loneliness and learning difficulties.
Unlikely friendships grow as each character tries to avoid the ringing of a bell that signals a misspelled word and the “thank-you for participating” juice box of shame that follows.
A colourful set with room for choreography — ranging from spirited individual performances to full-stage group dancing — contributes to the eccentric atmosphere of the play. Audience members have a relaxed, intimate experience with the small cast of big personalities, including on-stage participation and improvised interaction from the actors.
A lot of this convivial humour works because of the strong ensemble cast. These unique characters include a convict with a heart of gold, a couple of gay dads out to win, a boy who spells with his feet and the sardonic Vice Principal Douglas Panch who’s there to remind everyone life only gets worse as you get older.
Along with the unique and lovable characters, the energetic voices of the cast members make the musical performances all the more engaging and memorable. From the lament of an untimely erection to an appearance by Jesus himself, the music takes the audience through a rollercoaster of emotions.
Musical numbers such as “Magic Foot,” performed by Jake Tallon, and “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor,” performed by Lily Casey, contrast the moving performances of “The I Love You Song,” sung by Cameron
Durst-Jerkins, and “I’m Not That Smart,” sung by Oliver Parkins.
(Leaf played by Oliver Parkins.)
The comedy performance, which includes running jokes and risky humour gives the play an enjoyable edge and keeps a steady, amusing pace. Comic effect is intricately woven into the characters’ dialogue, mannerisms and dress, from Logainne “Schwarzy”SchwartzandGrubenierre’s tendency to fidget and talk with a lisp to William Morris Barfee’s dishevelled costume and awkward gait.
“It’s a really fun and unique experience,” director Maddy Scovil told The Journal. “It’s really light-hearted and contagious.”
Underlying the humour, however, are the kids’ often heartbreaking motives for winning the spelling bee. The story of character Olive Ostrovsky brings bittersweet emotion into the midst of comedy, adding incredible depth to the play as she navigates parental neglect. Because of this, the audience is confronted with the importance of understanding kids and the power adults have in influencing what lies beneath the surface.
“You can’t really know what’s going on in someone’s life,” Scovil said. “There’s so much involved in that sense of self-discovery at that age.”
The play’s resolution avoids cliches: the underdog doesn’t take home the trophy, Olive Ostrovsky’s parents never show up to watch her compete and the child prodigy never amounts to anything. The audience is left satisfied, however, as the characters find happiness and victory in their own ways.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee offers a cheerful and amusing experience to its audience, using both young and old characters to provide a connection to viewers of any age and create an overall touching story.
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