Spelling Bee is a funny reminder of middle-school awkwardness playing at Toronto’s Randolph Theatre
Full disclosure: Spelling Bee (playing at the Annex Theatre) is one of my favourite shows. Everything about it–the affectionate parody of middle-school awkwardness, the cringe-inducing audience participation, the surprising depth–hits the right buttons. Clever, but not dickish; emotional, but not melodramatic.
Set in a suburban gymnatorium, nine spellers (including several audience volunteers), each having conquered their own school’s competition, have advanced to the county final. The winner of today’s bee will move onto Washington’s national championship. The stakes are high, and as the spellers get picked off one at a time, we get brief glimpses into their worlds: Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, who wants nothing more than to make her two moms proud; Leaf Coneybear, trying to prove himself good at anything; William Barfée, whose only friend is the dictionary.
What makes this show unique is how readily it mixes the frivolous with the serious, and how wholeheartedly it embraces both extremes. “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry” is a tremendous cliché, but yes: an audience member did, in fact, piss herself laughing.
And, yes: moments later, several people were daintily rubbing the tears from their eyes.
What a show, eh?
And what a cast. Andrew J. Hampton, faced with a character written for an actor with a very different physicality, plays Barfée as Carlton Banks, and succeeds. Annelise Hawrylak gives her Marcy Park a flawless eagle-hawk stare, and deserved far more applause than she got for her big number: it takes some serious chops to pull off those acrobatics, especially while singing and accompanying herself on the piano.
My guest was very taken with Leaf Coneybear, played by Mitch Wedgewood with every inch of the hyperactive glee the part requires. Jackie Rose Brown, playing Mich M. Mahoney against type, gives her an edge that often makes her feel like she’s in another show entirely–and that’s sort of the point. The addition of a small chorus of “substitute spellers”, who do double-duty as parents, is also very effective, not only because Shai Tannyan and Jessical Harb are talented performers, but because it allows the company to really fill the stage during the big numbers.
Samantha Knapp turns in a hammy, over-the-top Vice-Principal Panch who smells faintly of Sarah Palin on downers, and Phoebe Hu anchors the show as Rona Lisa Peretti, former champion and host of the Bee. Kudos especially to Knapp, who improvises well when audience members refuse to co-operate.
But the two emotional cores of the show are Jordi O’Dael’s Logainne and Brittani Byrne’s Olive Ostrovsky. O’Dael nails the character perfectly: Logainne is a girl without a childhood, equally warmed and suffocated by her parents–and growing unable to keep up with their demands. This concealed desperation comes across very well, and the reprise of “Woe is Me” is one of the best parts of this production.
And then there’s Olive, whose eleven o’clock number, an excellent song on its own merits, goes a little sideways. I’ve always understood this to be a simple, less-is-more number: at this point in the show, most productions crank up the fog machine and clear the stage except for the singers. What transpires here is, in my view, a little busy, especially because the amount of activity on stage, combined with the theatre’s deep thrust, means half the audience have their sightlines blocked by other actors.
But Byrne, supported by Hu and Matt Raffy (doing triple duty as Jesus and Chip Tolentino), rescues it with an outstanding emotional performance which blows the top off the theatre. I won’t want to spoil the ending, but this is a number which lands hard, and Byrne more than delivers, leaving several quite large men in the audience wiping flecks of dust out of their eyes.
There is, of course, a live band–and the live band, led by Mark Camilleri, is, of course, excellent. Costume designer Kimberly Catton also nails it (VP Panch’s trousers, which ride halfway up her chest, were a perfect choice.), and director Anne Allan has her cast running like a well-oiled machine: the fingerprints of a good choreographer are all over the show, with much of the cast in perpetual motion–and looking like that’s exactly where they ought to be.
Spelling Bee often reads like a trivial show, and that’s okay. Those who were seeing the show for the first time clearly expected something frivolous and merely silly–and there’s a lot of that on the dancecard. But what they weren’t expecting was how serious, how deep and how moving something that starts off that silly can be. This understanding–it’s possible to send an important message while having an awful lot of fun–runs through this production, and that may be its greatest credit.
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through December 7th at the Annex Theatre (730 Bathurst St., through the Randolph parking lot.)
- Performances run nightly at 8:00 PM; 2:00 matinee on the 7th.
- Tickets cost $22 are cash-only, at the door before performances.
- This show is recommended for audiences aged 12 and over.
- Be advised that this production uses several fog machines.
Photograph of the cast by D. Spencer.