By Lory Diaz
Hart House Theatre in Toronto is currently performing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee until November 25, 2017. This comedic musical is based on the book by Rachel Sheinkin, with music and lyrics by William Finn, elements brought together by Rebecca Feldman, and directed by Cory Doran. Without a doubt, it has to be the best comedic performance I’ve seen at Hart House Theatre! Torontonicity was invited to attend and review the musical.
The musical takes place in a school gymnasium where six spellers have placed in their regional finals, and are competing in Putnam County in hopes of moving on to nationals. The spelling bee is hosted by three adults: the school’s Vice Principal, a community member completing their mandatory service hours, and a previous Putnam winner from years ago. The musical has received several Tony nominations, including two wins, in previous productions.
The Hart House Theatre production holds true to the original single setting – Brandon Kleiman’s set is the school gymnasium for the entire musical. There are chairs for the competitors at center stage, a table for the two hosting adults on stage left, opposite them a wall has been decorated as if it were a red brick wall with a door where failed competitors must exit through. The music is performed by a live trio, who sit at the back of the stage and perform all the songs live.
There is an important element of improvisation that injects many opportunities for laughter: four audience members are brought on to the stage to participate in the bee without any prior notice. These audience members are brought into the musical numbers, asked to spell questions, and become essential parts of the performance. I attended on opening night and have to say that the audience members were incredibly fun and were thoroughly enjoyable to watch, but either way, the cast is amazing at engaging with them and creating moments of hilarity.
Aside from the comedy brought on via the four new spellers, the lines used to define each word were also gut-wrenchingly hilarious; the audience had so many moments of explosive laughter! The cast was also dedicated to showcasing the quirky qualities of each character, which also lent itself to the comedy. Keep an eye out for Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (played by Erin Humphry), Vice Principal Panch (Art Carlson), and Leaf Coneybear (Kevin Foster) – they’re my picks for top performances: funny, endearing, and brilliantly played.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee doesn’t just offer up laughs, it also touches upon important themes that resonate with any audience: self-discovery and acceptance, the complexity of family dynamics, and the pressure of parental expectations. The sincerity with which the cast portrays this group of young adults is so striking that you may have moments where you feel deeply moved, like I did.
The scene of the musical is static, as it does remain solely in the school gymnasium, but Andre du Toit’s lighting plays an important part in creating movement and visual interest during musical numbers. There are a few moments where the subtle lighting changes add to a musical number, and result in hilarity. I did notice that there were a couple delays with spotlights, but that’s most likely the result of attending on opening night when cast and crew are working through nerves and anxiety. Kathleen Black’s baggy cardigans, quilted skirts, white knee socks and Converse shoes evoked a playful academic setting.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching Hart House Theatre’s production of the Spelling Bee! I adore that Cory Doran included some references that set the Bee in our current society, because it ties timeless themes perfectly into a contemporary setting. I also love how much engagement there is with the audience, because improv comedy done well is an impressive skill that results in hilarious moments. If you’re looking to enjoy an evening out with friends and family full of laughs while supporting a local theatre company that takes pride in introducing Canadian talent, please check out Hart House Theatre’s 2017-2018 lineup. Don’t miss The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Hart House Theatre, as I’m sure every performance will be a unique night of laughter!
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Hart House Theatre in Toronto is being performed on Nov. 10 and 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24 and 25, 2017 at 8 p.m. with an additional performance on Sat., Nov. 25, 2017 at 2 p.m.
Tickets are Adults $28, Seniors $17, Students $15. Students are $12 every Wednesday evening. Purchase tickets at the Hart House Theatre Box Office or online. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.