Photo | Scott Gorman
Hart House Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical comedy directed by Cory Doran, with music and lyrics written by William Finn. The plot centres on six quirky teenagers competing at a spelling bee set in the “Putnam Valley Middle School.” This production was definitely a crowd-pleaser, the audience roared with laughter at every awkward joke and heightened gesture—however, the essential story and the arch of the characters fell a little flat. The moments where the selected audience members participated in “the bee,” garnered the most applause and connection from the audience,
Every night of the performance, four audience members are selected to be “spellers” in “the bee,” joining the actors on the stage. They are given a character, and when their name is called just as the actual characters in the play are, they go up to the microphone—centre stage—and spell the word they are given. This generally creates a lot of laughter from the audience, especially as the four audience members are given some very simple words to spell such as “cow.” Unfortunately, the general choreography of the show did not benefit from having extra bodies on the stage who solely stood around. Of course, part of the appeal is that the audience gets to watch people on the stage reacting to the nonsense of the show, but it took away from the performance. It felt awkward to watch the six actors dance in the downstage area attempting to block the four audience members that were still very visible; being able to watch the reactions of the four audience members also subconsciously informed the actual audience how to react and feel. The instant sense of connection from the audience to the four audience members onstage allowed the audience to sympathize with them whenever they were eliminated from “the bee.” The applause that roared from the audience was infectious and the room felt united, however this applause was not the same compared to when the actual characters in the play were eliminated.
The strength of the script is that the audience really begins to love these quirky personalities because we can relate to them, either from feeling as if we know someone just like that character or because they remind us of ourselves, but this aspect of the show was completely missing. The actors were all very exaggerated in the most surface level sense. The actors were consistently performing their lines in a way that seemed over rehearsed and not rooted in genuine response. There was a lack of life and it did not feel like the actors were truly being affected by the other actors. This superficiality really creates a disconnect for the audience and lead to very mild applauses when a character would be eliminated from “the bee.” No one in the audience seemed to actually care who won and did not genuinely root for any of the characters as they are supposed to.
There were, however, two standout performances . Art Carlson, who plays Vice Principal Douglas Panch, was very understated and truthful compared to the rest of the cast. His refreshing performance brought a lot of comedic moments because of how real he was. Kevin Forster who plays Leaf Coneybear, as well as Carl Dad, did an excellent job handling the two roles, even when wearing the same costume in some scenes. It was impressive to see him portray a very heightened childlike character all while maintaining a sense of truth as Leaf, and then being a very honest and conniving father as Carl Dad.
The cast featured a lot of strong singers and it was impressive to hear that everyone could really sing. “The I Love You Song” featuring Vanessa Campbell, Amy Swift, and Carson Betz as Olive, Olive’s Mom, and Olive’s Dad, respectively, was a standout musical moment. The harmonies were spot on and the power of the melody filled the entire theatre. Carson Betz was notably the most gifted singer in the cast; his tone was gorgeous and his range is incredibly huge. Overall, everybody in the cast sang very well and it was delightful to hear them sing.
All things considered, this production is very enjoyable because it is fun. There are a lot of comedic moments and jokes that the audience responds well to. It’s unfortunate that the sense of genuine connection between the audience and the characters is compromised due to the heightened superficial acting styles, but who knows, maybe I came on an “off night.”