There are some likeable moments in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but this inaugural production in Suzart’s new After Dark series still leaves you wondering why the show collected several Tony awards and lasted more than two seasons on Broadway.
Its main merit lies in the few good performances that do take shape and in further revealing the exciting possibilities that the new Live On Elgin holds for Ottawa’s cultural life.
The show, which involves some audience participation, essentially chronicles the progress of a spelling bee in words and music. But Elaine McCausland and her cast are delivering more of a staged performance than anything resembling a proper production. To be sure, the nature of the material might suggest that it’s ideal for an intimate venue like this, but the end result lacks the imaginative vigour that represents this enterprising theatre company at its best.
Still there is pleasurable work from Liam Gosson as Leaf Conneybear, an amiable young contestant with a knack from conquering his insecurities and managing to come through at the last minute with the correct spelling at each round, and Jay Landreville, smug and self-satisfied, as an opponent named Barfee. Rachel Duchesneau has some nice moments of vulnerability as Olive, who’s travelled to the spelling bee by bus, Adam Goldberg is very funny as the increasingly frazzled vice-principal entrusted with giving contestants ludicrous examples of sentences employing words to be spelled correctly, and Axandre Lemours supplies benign comic menace as the guy whose involvement in the bee is part of his community service.
However, the production fails to overcome the generally static feel that this material will invite unless it is mounted with tender loving care. What we get for the most part is a series of turns from various cast members, some of which work better than others.
The show is a musical, but it seems significant that it’s at its most enjoyable when no one is singing. That’s because Rachel Sheinkin has written an engaging and often witty book, with an underlying — but in this production not always evident — subtext about winners and losers. As for the songs, William Finn is a better lyricist than he is a composer: his music, generally insipid and unappealing, poses a continuing challenge to performers required to make it sound better than it really is. Cast members repeatedly fail this challenge. This is an off-pitch offering in more ways than one.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
A Suzart After Dark Production
Live on Elgin to Feb. 20
Director: Elaine McCausland
Musical Director: Catherine Spear
Choreographer: Madeline Busby
Lighting: Jeff Schultz
Kristopher Tharris: Chip Tolentino, Jesus
Rachel Rumstein: Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere
Liam Gosson: Leaf Coneybear, Carl Dad
Jay Landreville: William Barfee
Kathryn McLaren: Marcy Park
Rachel Duchesneau: Olive Ostrovsky
Tara St. Pierre: Rona Lisa Perretti, Olive’s Mom
Adam Goldberg: Vice Principal Panch
Axandre Lemours: Mitch Mahoney, Dan Dad, Olive’s Dad