If you’re looking for a fun night at the theatre, you won’t do better than the Canterbury Theatre Guild’s current revival of the 2005 Broadway musical, THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM SPELLING BEE (music and lyrics by William Finn and based on the book by Rachel Sheinkin).
The Guild performs this, in fact all its productions, at the Canterbury Bowling Club Hall. While the space is unprepossessing, the talent on stage, and the friendly vibe from front-of-house, more than compensate for the homely venue. In fact, in many ways the venue is eminently suitable for the “down home” nature of this musical.
The story focuses on the six contestants in the Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee; the winner of the Bee will go on to represent Putnam County at the next level of the competition. The opening number is very strong, clearly establishing the characters. During the course of the Bee, the audience comes to know the competitors very well – both their strengths and their foibles. These are not cookie-cutter characters but fully drawn individuals; all the actors portray their characters with skill and conviction and engage our empathy as well as our sense of humour.
One of the most poignant scenes in the show involves the competitor Olive Ostovosky, played by Anita Margiotta. Olive arrives at the Bee without her parents, as her mother is looking for enlightenment in an ashram in India, while her father is equally indifferent to his daughter’s endeavours. Olive is given the word “Chimerical” to spell, and soon the imaginary figures of her father and mother appear, and perform a wonderful rendition of the song, “I Love You”. Olive is totally caught up in this “moment” with her parents, but at the end of the song, she spells the word correctly and gives the definition: “Chimerical. C-h-i-m-e-r-i-c-a-l. Highly unrealistic, wildly fanciful”. Olive’s realisation that her parents have no interest in her is very moving.
The character of Logainne Schwartzand-Grubenierre, played by Rosemarie Olk, is a hoot! She is beset with two gay dads who have high expectations, and an unfortunate lisp. As she is always asked to spell words containing an “S”, her lisp becomes a great source of humour. The students are able to ask for each word to be used in a sentence, which usually offers no help whatsoever: “Cystitis – Sally’s mother told her it was her cystitis that made her special.” Logainne, a middle school student, looked appropriately perplexed!
The singing is this performance is very strong. While all the characters sing well, special mention should go to Melissa Goman both in her role as the compere, and as Olive’s mother.
The setting is very simple but effective, with tiered seating for the competitors and a background that provides a light show for different scenes. The lighting effect for the Pandemonium scene was particularly impressive! The stage is small but adequate for the simple, but well-rehearsed choreography.
I urge theatre goers to make their way to Canterbury Bowling Club before the season finishes. Random audience members (chosen from those asked to volunteer before the show) are invited onstage to compete alongside the six young characters. With any luck, you will finally be able to realise your performance ambitions!
I have only one request for the cast. Please come out for another bow at the end. Last night, your audience definitely wanted to thank you again!
The Canterbury Theatre Guild’s production of the 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE opened at the Canterbury Bowling Club, 15 Close Street, Canterbury on Friday 19th April and is playing until Sunday 28th April, 2013.
© Mary Wren