Music and lyrics by William Finn. Book by Rachel Sheinkin. Conceived by Rebecca Feldman. Directed by Michael Shamata. Presented by the Arts Club Theatre Company in association with the Belfry Theatre. At the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage on Wednesday, June 23. Continues until July 31
Excellent (ek-se-lent). Languages of origin: French and Latin. Definition: preeminent, superior, extremely good. Used in a sentence: This production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is so excellent that you’ll leave the theatre knowing what excellence is.
The show, which began as an improvised play called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E and went on to become a scripted off-Broadway production that opened in 2005, is about a bunch of kids competing in a spelling bee.
The characters, who reveal themselves through interactions and solo songs, charm with their eccentricities. William Barfée can only breathe through one nostril because of problems with mucus, and he spells out his words with his foot. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre leads the gay-straight alliance at her elementary school and signs for the benefit of the hearing-impaired. In this West Coast version of the story, Leaf Coneybear comes from Salt Spring Island, where he is home-schooled. Leaf carries a comfort blanket and wears a helmet that has animal ears sticking out the top.
The most impressive thing about director Michael Shamata’s production is how uniformly strong the performances are. In his portrait of William, Josh Epstein is both wildly eccentric and absolutely in control: William surreptitiously strokes Leaf’s animal ears and speaks with an adenoidal arrogance that can never hide his innocence, and Epstein sings and dances like the musical-theatre pro he has so quickly become. I also particularly enjoyed Jeremy Crittenden’s Leaf, a characterization of such geeky vulnerability and joy that it makes you want to adopt. Playing nerdy little Olive Ostrovsky, whose parents are too busy to attend the competition, Tracy Neff knocks it out of the park. You won’t believe the power she unleashes in “The I Love You Song”, one of the musical highlights of the evening.
Everybody in the cast rocks. That includes Sara-Jeanne Hosie, who turns on her trademark warmth as the bee’s adult organizer; Michael Blake as an ex-con whose job it is to comfort competitors when they’re eliminated; Brian Linds, who allows just enough variation in his deadpan performance as the pronouncer to keep his characterization hilarious; Alison MacDonald, touchingly pent-up as Logainne; Rosie Simon as the classically overachieving Asian kid; and Vincent Tong as a young jock whose penis betrays him.
Vocally, this is an all-star cast—both in solo work and in the dense supporting harmonies. As always, musical director Bruce Kellett makes a tiny band—three musicians, in this case—sound much larger. And, thanks to sound designer Andrew Tugwell, we get to hear it all; the mix is perfect. Laura Krewski’s choreography is fresh, witty, and surprising. Set designer Yvan Morissette makes the show’s school-gymnasium location look crisp and stylin’. And costumer Erin Macklem expertly supports the characterizations.
Not only has director Shamata cast this show beautifully and helmed a stylistically seamless production, he also creates pleasing and sometimes subtle stage pictures.
Act 2 of the musical itself is better than Act 1. In the first act, four audience members are invited on-stage as spellers, which is fun but disrupts the show’s reality, and there’s always the danger that some of these invitees will showboat. One number, “Pandemonium”, almost feels like it comes out of nowhere. Still, Act 1 is a wild good time and Act 2, which gains some emotional depth, is even more satisfying.
If you love musical theatre, you’ll love this show. And if you know somebody who hates musicals, drag them out to Spelling Bee and convert them.