“My parents keep on telling me just being here is winning, although I know it isn’t so!” sings Chip, a character in the charming musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which opened at Hart House Theatre on Friday, November 10.
The show is set in a high school gymnasium, where contestants compete in the Putnam County Spelling Bee and for a place in the national competition. The story is told across nearly two hours, with the contestants taking turns to spell words that range from easy, like ‘cow,’ to more difficult, like ‘Weltanschauung.’ As the show progresses, the spellers are eliminated one by one, until a single contestant is left. They reveal their backstories between rounds.
The contestants consist of an eclectic and quirky mix of characters. Former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Amy Swift) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Art Carlson) are introduced as the host and pronouncer of the competition, respectively, alongside a mix of overachieving student competitors.
Leaf Coneybear (Kevin Forster) is the only student who didn’t make first place in his district’s spelling bee and spells his words in a trance, and Marcy Park (Braelyn Guppy), who speaks six languages and skipped fourth and fifth grade, has high expectations for winning the competition.
William Barfée (Hugh Ritchie) exudes confidences, using his “magic foot” to spell out words before giving an answer, and the determined Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Erin Humphry) faces severe pressure from her two dads in the audience, frequently ranting about the state of politics in America.
Chip Tolentino (John Wamsley), last year’s champion, is back to defend his title amidst some raging hormones, and Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Campbell), a somewhat nervous newcomer, is best friends with her dictionary and the only contestant without parents or supporters in the audience.
Finally, Mitch Mahoney (Carson Betz) is present at the spelling bee in order to complete his community service by comforting the eliminated contestants with a hug and a juice box.
The ensemble portrays these roles with both humour and sincerity. The audience often erupted with laughter at the production’s endless jokes, but attendees were also moved by heartfelt moments like “The I Love You Song” sung by Olive and her parents. Another unique aspect of the show is its audience participation, with several theatergoers brought onstage to participate as contestants in the spelling bee. These unscripted scenes make for hilarious moments.
Throughout the story, the characters learn that winning isn’t everything. This is especially true in a scene near the end, when Marcy asks Jesus himself (Wamsley) if he’ll be disappointed if she loses, to which he replies, “Of course not… I also won’t be disappointed with you if you win… this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play at the Hart House Theatre until November 25.