THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
ON TOUR, Fighting Chance Productions
My Two Pence
My Two Cents
By Penny Warwick
Silly, fun and charming Fighting Chance’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will leave you feeling light. The production is currently on tour as a remount of the popular show last year and looks very well suited to the cosy theatre at Langley Playhouse. Fear not Vancouver, the next stop is New West which is now easily accessible thanks to the extension to the Skytrain.
The set is simple and modest, and plays exactly to the location – a school gymnasium. After a short introductory announcement from Rona Peretti (the teacher/organizer played confidently by Jennifer Suratos) the higgledy-piggledy assortment of students begin to file in. I was pleasantly surprised in how these adult performers were able to bring the essence of childhood to their portrayals without over-acting them. Each character had very distinct personalities and the play was cast very well to reflect this. The cast is strong, and Charlie Deagnon, Ryan Lino and Mary Littlejohn particularly stood out to me for their commitment to consistency within their roles.
I didn’t love the play itself. It is a slow starter, and apart from a few quirky songs and fun audience participations/interactions in the first half not a lot seemed to be happening – so the second half where we are drawn into more of a narrative structure felt rushed and disingenuous. That being said the heartbreaking “The I Love You Song” left many in the audience teary eyed. On the complete flipside "Chip’s Lament" had the surprise element I was looking for – I can’t describe it, but if you’re not bothered about spoilers then just look it up.
The production unfortunately had one huge problem – sound. The tracks are pre-recorded and the cast do not have microphones. There was no tricky leveling of different instruments to be done or amount of reverb or treble/bass needed, it was a simple case of bringing the level of the music down. And it was so sad this was not done as Andrew Cohen/Thomas King’s musical direction was fantastic and the vocal talent displayed by the cast was more than enough. Sometimes words or sentences were missed by this issue with the volume and the beautiful harmonies were often struggling come through. A simple fix which is truly unfortunate.
Overall, Spelling Bee was great. Ryan Mooney knows how to put a strong cast together and I’m sure Fighting Chance will continue to produce solid productions like this one.
By Kelly Moncton
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a quick, clever musical stuffed with quirky characters. Fighting Chance Productions have assembled a talented cast and set them loose to great effect. The energy and talent filled the Langley Playhouse, and won us over easily.
Jenn Suratos, charming as the enthusiastic teacher sponsor, invited some audience members to join in the spelling bee, and provided silly colour commentary while the actors and guests approached the microphone. I particularly liked it when the backstory related to what the guest speller looked like, and when the cast members helped the audience members join in during dance numbers.
Having seen this musical performed a couple times before, I was interested to see how this cast tackled playing talented weirdo children. They didn’t fall into the trap of playing generic ‘little kid’ behavior, but found more interesting traits to focus on. Ashlee Kim was matter-of-fact and confident, and Ian Crowe was endearingly vague. I enjoyed Kelli Ogmundson’s confidence when dealing with spelling words that emphasized her character’s lisp, and her uncertainty when handling her parents’ ambitions. Mary Littlejohn was impressive in her flustered, worried moments, and her more dramatic I Love You song later. Ryan Lino, as the returning champion dealing with the beginnings of puberty, made high notes and embarrassing moments all seem easy and natural.
Charlie Deagnon played a boy whose foot helps him spell, which is already pretty ridiculous, but he went over-the-top in his excitement and energy in a way which didn’t seem to match the others on stage. On the other end of the scale, James Melcher and Thomas King were given less storyline as the Vice-Principal and Comfort Counsellor respectively. I didn’t get as clear a sense of their understated characters, but they both had some great moments. The contrast between some big energy characters and more subtle ones was too extreme for my taste
Perhaps because of the small space, the accompaniment music was pre-recorded, and the timing of all of the songs was impressively handled by the crew and cast. They were smooth and confident, but it still made things a bit confusing for the audience, who couldn’t always take time to applaud when it felt natural, as the recorded track wasn’t finished. Another concern was the volume, which was too loud for the voices multiple times during the show. As a fast-paced show with lots to say, it’s such a shame when we miss out on any words. The simple set and just-a-little-silly clothes set the scene beautifully.
As a fan of light clever shows, Fighting Chance Productions’ Spelling Bee worked for me. I certainly encourage you to catch all the fun at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster next weekend.