Spelling Bee Worth the Buzz

justin keyes, katie boren, andrew keenan-bolger, vanessa ray, eric roediger & dana steingold

It was bittersweet to sit in the Elgin Theatre tonight watching Dancap host the American touring cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee after digesting the saddening news about the “reorganization” of the Canadian Stage Company a few days ago. It is a privilege to be able to invite artists from the United States to Toronto and have them perform for us. There is something so charming and communal about this experience of welcoming and being welcomed- of sharing and receiving. Music has the ability to transcend language and culture, and musical theatre can be the light at the end of the tunnel after a long day of February. Under the skilled direction of James Lapine this show is set up to be especially interactive, as several audience members are featured onstage with the actors for a considerable length of the show. Here a sort of collective is created, and it is dynamic and fraught with fun possibilities every night.

On its own William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a delightful show centered on the young contestants of a Spelling Bee, each of whom dreams of being the best, the brightest and placing first. Finn’s music is fun and whimsical, while his lyrics are continually hilarious and compliment the wonderfully kooky characters that populate the stage. It is these characters, with special emphasis on the seven Spelling Bee contestants, that will insure an evening of laughter and joy while utterly endearing themselves, despite their rather eccentric first impressions.
The cast of nine actors were all magnificently well suited to their roles and brought such enthusiasm and child-like energy to the stage. Katie Boren played the exhausted overachiever Marcy Park with the perfect mix of comedy and angst, especially when brilliantly showcasing her plethora of hidden talents (including playing part of the piano for her own song!) as well as her hilariously liberating breakdown. Andrew Keenan-Bolger was utterly charming as tender, earnest Leaf Coneybear, who sees flashes of light and spells words he’s never heard of before. It’s worth the ticket price of the show just to watch Keenan-Bolger swallow several mouthfuls of bubbles moments before having to sing. Justin Keyes’ Chip Tolentino perfectly dramatizes the many perils of being a young teenaged boy keen to be the best and be noticed. His hysterical rendition of “Chip’s Lament” draws the audience into the world of Putnam County in a way that very few musicals are able to accomplish. Dana Steingold shines as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the little high-strung daughter of two stage dads with a gigantic speech impediment. Steingold is every inch a nine year in this role, her energy is boundless, she has astute sense of comic timing, her smile is utterly enchanting and her rendition of “Woe Is Me (Reprise)” is heart wrenching. Eric Roediger makes his professional debut in this show, but judging by his fantastic performance as William Barfeé you would never believe it. His entire presence is a joy to watch and his Magic Foot dancing is a definite highlight of the show. Vanessa Ray gives a beautiful heartfelt performance as Olive Ostrovsky, the sweet forgotten girl looking for someone to care about her. Her goregous voice and detailed characterization insures that Olive’s innate goodness roots the audience firmly in the story.
All in all, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is as enchanting a night a theatre as I could ask for, and I am so thrilled that we are able to bring such inspiring, talented young artists to Toronto to perform for us. At the same time, however, I am acutely aware of the masses of musical theatre artists indigenous to Canada who have not been provided with sufficient opportunities to perform in these sorts of musicals on such a grandiose scale (or otherwise) for audiences here in Toronto and across the country. As Canadian citizens, I firmly believe that we should show support to our many talented actors by refusing to sit idly by and watch Producers lacking national artistic vision shut Canadians out of their own theatre community by focusing solely on bringing in theatre from elsewhere. There is no reason that a Toronto production of this show could not be just as fantastic as the performance I witnessed at the Elgin tonight. It is my hope that someday soon, when we welcome the touring players from America, we can proudly show off our Canadian musical theatre productions, and the two will happily co-exist in theatres side by side (by Sondheim).
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge Street) until February 10th, 2008. For tickets visit the Dancap website at http://www.dancaptickets.com/ or call 416 872-5555