THEATRE REVIEW BY KEN CHISHOLM
For anyone, like me, who found live coverage of the America National Spelling Bee from that nation’s capital more intense and entertaining than a rocket launch, what could be better?
Well, you could set it to music and turn it into a hit Broadway play like William Finn (who wrote the music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (who wrote the book) did with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, the Saturday offering in the Highland Arts Theatre’s summer season.
Granted, the fictional Putnam County isn’t Washington, D.C., but it’s close enough for the six young folk whose training for the event makes most Olympic gold medalists look like directionless slackers.
Chip (Brandon Carabin) is the returning “Bee” champion and big man, er, boy on the middle school campus. He gets the early brush off from Marcy (MacKenzie Sechi) who made it into the top ten in D.C. and everyone expects big things from her. Chip’s attentions in turn fall on Marigold the sister of Leaf (Ciaran MacGillivray) who only made the “Bee” finals when his school’s actual winner and runner up had a previous social engagement to attend. Leaf, although a gentle soul, gives one the impression he might have trouble spelling his own name or perhaps even using properly in a sentence.
Logainne (Lesley MacLean) is another striver like Marcy but driven more by the desire not to disappoint her two dads (one of whom is not above giving her an edge on another opponent). Sweet, lonely Olive (Emily O’Leary) is abandoned by her mom (ashram in India) and her dad (more mad at his wife than supportive of his daughter) and hopes a good showing will get her some attention from either of them. Then there’s Barfee (Wesley J. Colford), the quintessential four eyed, asthmatic, officious dweeb whose secret weapon is his “magic foot” that helps him spell out the various words with uncharacteristic balletic grace.
Some of the kids seem positively mature compared to the adults. Rona (Katherine Woodford), the event’s emcee, won the Bee in its first decade and, despite her success as a realtor, it remains the defining moment of her life. After some kind of meltdown at a previous Bee, Vice-Principal Panch (Andrew Gouthro) returns to be the word pronouncer and judge but seems preoccupied with the lovely Rona. As contestant consoler, Mitch Mahoney (Ron Newcombe) dispenses hugs and juice boxes as part of his court appointed community service.
This production was directed by East Bay native, Ron Jenkins, one of our country’s most sought after directors. Jenkins most recently directed “Next To Normal” at the HAT and he brings to “Spelling Bee” the same energy and intensity with a lot more humour than in the darker themed “Normal”. Like his previous shows at the HAT, Jenkins takes his actors deep into their characters—every movement, line reading seems fresh and spontaneous and real—and he fills the simple but colourful set—bleachers, desk, and plenty of bunting, flags, and lighting effects—with action. Some of the cleverly staged set pieces showing the passage of time—sped up or slowed down—are worth the price of admission.
Like his other HAT shows, director Jenkins makes an ensemble of his cast: it’s hard to highlight any one performance because they all play at the same high level and work together seamlessly.
Katherine Woodford brings a sincerity to Rona that gives her a depth and likeability; it would be easy to play her as a cartoon but Woodford’s performance is never less than three dimensional. Andrew Guthro, acerbic as ever, also gets to be something his previous fine work at the HAT rarely offers: a nice guy. Ron Newcombe, as Mitch and a few other small parental roles, shows his range adds many comedic turns.
MacKenzie Sechi lends her powerhouse pipes to Marcy as well some surprising gymnastic moves. As Logainne, Lesley MacLean gets to step out of her usual dancing duties and shows her formidable comedic and acting chops. Emily O’Leary, another amazing singer, makes Olive sweet without being sappy: she sparkles with charm.
Brandon Carabin’s Chip had the funniest and most audience pleasing song of the evening as he struggles to spell during an unexpected public display of affection for Marigold. Ciaran MacGillivray, another of the show’s set of powerful singers, also got to exercise his comedic skills to high effect. Wesley J. Colford made Barfee (apparently there’s an accent over his name that makes it less nauseating) gave the most physically demanding performance, full of tics, condescension, wheezing, and weird, hilarious foot movements and that also conveyed to the audience, his character was still a kid, and a likeable kid at that (if an acquired taste, like olives).
And kudos to some last minute spellers recruited from the audience. Their enthusiasm and spelling prowess during the opening night’s performance were impressive and just as funny as their more rehearsed stage mates.
“Spelling Bee” also featured the smart, professional, lively musical direction of Chris Mounteer. His singers hit every note true and, even as the lyrics zipped by, the audience heard every syllable of the very funny book during some complex harmonies. Mounteer also played piano in the pit orchestra assisted by the expert playing of Barb Stetter (flute/clarinet/oboe), Geoffrey Lee-Dadswell (cello), and Ron Leadbetter (drums).
Top marks go all of the technical crew: Ken Heaton’s exuberant lighting design, Kayla Cormier’s striking costume and set design, Tristan Barlett’s convincing props, and Mary-Jean Doyle’s skilled stage management.
All in all, this team, on stage and behind the scenes, created a production that had its audience laugh out loud from beginning to end. And no doubt some of them will return during the summer to enjoy one of the most purely fun shows the HAT has offered so far.