With the often stressful holiday season bearing down, some days you just need a good laugh. There is currently no better antidote for your Christmas anxiety than the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
The set-up is simple. A motley group of middle school stereotypes stand before the microphone as they attempt to spell words like chimerical, phylactery, capybara, and omphaloskepsis.
In Rachel Sheinkin’s already funny book, those words become some of the biggest laugh-out-loud moments as the kids ask for them to be used in a sentence. For example, strabismus means “the inability to obtain binocular vision with the other because of an imbalance of the muscles of the eyeball”. Pretty dry for a musical comedy, but when used in as sentence it becomes comedy gold: “In the schoolyard Billy protested that he wasn’t cockeyed. ‘I suffer from strabismus’ he said, whereupon the bullies beat him harder”.
As the show progresses, the spellers are eliminated one-by-one, until a single winner remains. Between spelling rounds they tell their backstories in song.
Bringing the six adolescents to life is a talented ensemble of adults. Embracing their inner child, there is not a weak link here as the quintet elevate their portrayals of these adolescent overachievers beyond simple caricature.
While Spelling Bee is ostensibly a comedy, many of its highlights come from the more heartfelt songs, from composer and lyricist William Finn.
Ian Crowe as Leaf Coneybear gives a heart-breaking rendition of “I’m Not That Smart”, and Ashlee Kim breaks Marcy Park’s soul-crushing cycle in “I Speak Six Languages”. In one of the more fully serious moments, Sara Walters’s lends her gorgeous voice to add emotional depth to “The I Love You Song”.
Far from constantly tugging at the heartstrings though, Spelling Bee is awash in childish antics, many of which just might transport you back to your own youth.
Ryan Lino brings down the house in the second act opener “My Unfortunate Erection” and Charlie Deagon is perfectly suited to William (“It’s pronounced Bar-FAY”) Barfee, complete with his “leg up” on the competition.
Rounding out the group of kids is Kelli Ogmundson as Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre, the daughter to two over-achieving dads . In one of several cleverly inserted topical references, Ogmundson takes a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance, and even manages a rant about the recent election south of the border.
Helping the younger set along the way is the always delightful Jennifer Suratos as former spelling bee champ Rona Peretti, and James Melcher as vice-principal Douglas Panch. And finally, Thomas King plays “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney, tasked with escorting each of the eliminated kids off stage, with a hug and a juice box.
A few uncredited spellers also make appearances. Without wanting to spoil too much of the fun though, suffice to say it makes for some of the funniest unscripted moments on stage.
Under Ryan Mooney’s direction the show never loses steam. He is helped by choreographer Erin Michell who captures the necessary child-like quality, and costume designer Melicia Zaini who helps bring each of these character’s identities (and idiosyncrasies) to life.
Hidden behind a curtain is musical director Andrew Cohen and his small band (Arielle Balance and David Cohen) who do great work with the music. Cohen has obviously taken great care in the larger ensemble numbers with some of the harmonies simply exquisite. To his credit and that of the ensemble, even the repeating “Goodbye” songs are impressive.
In a season of Scrooge, carols and all manner of other seasonal delights, sometimes you just need an escape from the Christmas onslaught. Let The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee be that diversion. For in a word, it is simply T E R R I F I C, terrific!
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin. Conceived by Rebecca Feldman. Directed by Ryan Mooney. A Fighting Chance Productions presentation on stage at the PAL Studio Theatre (581 Cardero St, Vancouver) until December 10. Visit https://fightingchanceproductions.ca for tickets and information.