THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEEBy Andrea Warner
Hating The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is like hating baby seals or puppies. It’s just not possible.
When it debuted in 2005, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical ushered in a new era of over-achieving nerd heroes. Populated with awkward prepubescents — who are not only earnest competitors, but characters rife with complicated home lives and personality traits — it’s fair to say that Spelling Bee paved the way for television shows like Glee: fun and adorable, but with a soothing balance of acidic wit.
The contestants are a creative assortment of gently satirical stereotypes, but the show largely belongs to its two main characters, Olive Ostrovsky (Tracy Neff), a shy girl neglected by her parents, and William Barfée (Josh Epstein, who very nearly steals every scene), an insecure but obnoxious know-it-all with only one working nostril. Neff shines brightest in the achingly resonant “I Love You Song,” while Epstein infuses “My Magic Foot” with cheeky charm. The two forge an unlikely friendship, which provides a nice beating heart to ground the hilarity of subsequent songs like “My Unfortunate Erection.”
The rest of the cast is afforded plenty of brilliant moments as well, thanks to some sharp performances and astute line delivery. Alison MacDonald nails every “eth” as the hyper-driven, lisping Logainne, and Brian Linds has a blast delivering every deadpan definition as the moderator, Principal Patch. Rosie Simon makes a strong debut as adorable Catholic schoolgirl Marcy Park, and Jeremy Crittenden’s transformation into the home-schooled Leaf Coneybear is a perfect combination of tics and tonal inflection.
This a fun show with a great cast that packs an emotional whomp. But what really pushes Spelling Bee from good to great is a wonderfully weird sense of humour. The laughs seldom stop, thanks partly to some clever regional modifications (Surrey jokes!) and improvised wisecracks, making it pitch-perfect summer fare.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs to July 31 at Granville Island Stage, 8pm (Mon-Sat), 7:30pm (Tues). Matinees: Wed, Sat, 2pm. Tickets $25-$50 from 604-687-1644 or ArtsClub.ca