By Abbie Gallagher
Welcome to the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Six spellers, two judges, and an intimidating ‘comfort counsellor’ who’s actually out on parole. The rules are simple. You may ask questions about the word’s definition, language of origin and have it used in a sentence. If you misspell a word, the bell rings. There can only be one winner. But if you lose, you get a juice box!
On first glance, the synopsis of Spelling Bee may seem like a silly romp for kids, but anyone who watches it, and especially those lucky enough to see Blackout Theatre Company’s production will know, there’s a reason Spelling Bee is such a beloved staple of theatre.
Spelling Bee is unique in the sense that it is far more driven by character than story, and the cast of personalities are eccentric, colourful and larger-than-life in their own way. Politically active Logainne SchwartzandGrubinerre (Fiona Brennan), the youngest competitor with two overbearing gay fathers and a severe lisp. Jaded overachiever Marcy Park (Millie Reid, who deserves special mention for performing the show with a case of laryngitis!). Leaf Coneybear (Tim Drummond), from a large and bizarre family who drifts in and out of a trance. Chip Tolentino (Douglas Bryant) who is about to discover the perils of puberty. William Barfee (a show-stealing Rob Hartley). Olive Ostrovsky (Charlie Arkle, who arguably gave the best, most touching performance), a sweet yet neglected girl who’s best friend is her dictionary. Miss Rona Lisa Peretti (Melanie Sestic), a real estate agent who won the 3rd annual Bee and hasn’t let go. Fan favourite Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Anthony Chester) who has returned to the Bee after an unspecified ‘incident’ five years previously. And finally, Mitch Mahoney (James Cerone, who apparently has never performed before but you’d be more than forgiving for disbelieving this!), an ex-con out on parole, the aforementioned comfort counsellor who gives hugs and juice boxes to eliminated spellers. You’ll learn words you didn’t know existed, like ‘omphaloskepsis’ and you’ll be roaring with laughter at the hilarious sentences the spellers are given to aid the competition.
The real strength of Spelling Bee comes from the brilliant script. No two performances are the same, mainly due to the four guest spellers picked from the audience every time. If these guest spellers are uncooperative, the show can fall apart, but thankfully the contestants at this performances were more than ready to join in the fun, as was the audience who were highly enthusiastic from the moment they entered the theatre.
Speaking of which, the Pioneer Theatre is a new space, and absolutely right for a production like this. It’s intimate, but not suffocating. It has a scale, but not an overwhelming presence. Spelling Bee is a rare piece that can easily adapt to a variety of venues due to the simple setting and character-heavy plot. But at the same time, all the characters have satisfying arcs, and the show definitely has a narrative that will make you laugh til you cry, after being extremely moved.
All the actors did a fine job, despite a few patchy moments with the sound and illness. Not one performance short-changed the audience and I am not at all ashamed to admit I laughed til I cried. Director Jordan Anderson took advantage rework many moments in very innovative ways, and my hat is off to them all. This is community theatre at its finest, and I can’t wait to see what Blackout Theatre Company does with their next production, A Chorus Line.
Reviewer, Abbie, with the Cast
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.