Before getting into the meat and potatoes of this review of Western Canada Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee an important fact must be made absolutely clear.
I hate musicals. With a passion. It’s a contrived storytelling medium with generally lackluster songs that get in the way of what would otherwise be a perfectly good story. In my opinion.
So Putnam County had one big strike against it going in. Throw in a day spent building decks, pruning trees and doing yard work and the last thing this reviewer felt like doing was sitting through a play.
Despite too much sun and a distain for musical theatre, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee managed to win me over with its tale of the pressures felt by six school children as they compete in the aforementioned bee.
Did I mention there are four members of the audience who also compete in the bee? There are, and this adds to the fun. But the less you know about that going in the better.
Putnam County has several things going for it. For one, it’s told in real time, which means not a moment is wasted through the play’s 90-minutes.
We’re introduced to the cast of colourful, neurotic characters as the bee unfolds. And the laughs come quickly via the characters, their relationships with each other, and how they compete in the bee.
It doesn’t hurt Putnam County one bit having adults play the children. In fact, they disappear into their roles and one soon forgets they are watching grown-ups at all.
The characters are a big part of the show’s success. At some point, we’ve all known kids like this — be it William Barfee’s arrogant nerd or Olive Ostrovsky’s sad genius — and they are played to charming perfection with intelligence and wit.
Adam Charles’s Leaf Coneybear — a likable boy who makes his own clothes and isn’t all that smart — is an audience favourite, and deservedly so. He’s the underdog in a bee full of underdogs.
Which brings us to the music. Every character has a song that tells his or her story and every one is a winner, alternating between laughs and touching character moments everyone can relate. Olive’s song, where she pines for her absentee mom, is heartbreaking.
And it must be noted that the music is catchy. Barfee’s Magic Foot song was stuck in my head all weekend, as was Coneybear’s I’m Not That Smart. That’s the sign of a good song.
If you’re looking for a fun and energetic night complete with a catchy song or two, you need look no further than Putnam County.