For a production done by university students, the KTS sure gets grade school right in their last play of the season, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
The musical isn’t some trite, dramatic exposure of the pressure and failures of school. Instead, Spelling Bee is playful—fabricating spontaneity in under two hours. The story’s exactly what the title advertises: a spelling bee with kids wheeling in their own anxieties, from the pressures enforced by parents to the simple absence of those parents. With no act breaks, Spelling Bee starts in a bolt and never stops, somehow touching upon childhood crushes, awkward erections, smart alecks and magic feet without a breath.
The actors are game, each of them dressed in some stereotype and ready to shed it. Olivia Belanger’s costuming gets their costumes down to the essentials, adding to the pace of the musical as the actors change characters without a noticeable absence on stage.
Most of Spelling Bee’s singing and dancing is strong. There’s real synergy between the performers and the music, everything well choreographed and directed by Emma Bartlett and Sean Young, respectively. Cues are nailed and the action on stage stayed relatively clear aside from a song or two. The music isn’t showy; Hannah Muhajarine keeps it simple with a piano. Spelling Bee doesn’t need anything more than that.
The cast appeared not practiced whatsoever—they were as instinctive and personal as kids are. As a joyful cape-wearing kid, Sean MacIssac captures all the giggles and wide smiles of that age. The script gives a flurry of jokes to every actor, though perhaps none better than for Robert Peterson – a scout with the aforementioned boner. His troubles are appealingly lowbrow, accurately showing everything truly awkward about being a kid. It’s these simple, accurate experiences that keep Spelling Bee from popping its own balloon. As funny as it can be, its relentless humor can grate, especially with its topical swings at Rob Ford and need for a new gag each time a student asks for their word in a sentence.
Three actors in particular bring a warped reality to the musical. Meg Collins as the moderator, is creepily giddy like most adults caught up in the drama of children, while Caitlyn Parsons as Olive is strikingly normal and emotional as she hopes for either of her parents to fill their empty seats at the bee. And finally, Justin Moir alternates between cutesy innocence and nasal-voiced arrogance, without effort. Collins and Parsons share a tearful song—the best in the musical—and Moir’s Barfée gets his first taste of romance. And just as it should be, the prize of the bee is worth much less by the end of the musical.
What you get in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is humor and honesty at Gatling gun speed, all brought together by actors who have the energy and experience to display exactly what these fictional kids are going through. Did I mention there’s free candy too?