Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – a hilarious trip back to a-d-o-l-e-s-c-e-n-c-e

Oh, to be young again, full of bodily fluids and farts, inappropriate erections, adolescent angst and that underlying pressure to make one’s overbearing parents proud.  And while some of it sounds a bit juvenile, that is exactly the point as the Arts Club presents the hilarious The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at its Granville Island stage now through July 31st.

Setting out to win this year’s spelling bee is a rag-tag group of stereotypical middle school geeks played by an incredible ensemble of local adult talent (Jeremy Crittenden, Josh Epstein, Alison MacDonald, Tracy Neff, Rosie Simon and Vincent Tong).

Despite what one might think, playing tween and teens as an adult is not a simple task, and this is made even more difficult here as writer Rachel Sheinkin infuses each of these adolescent overachievers with a variety of individual idiosyncrasies.  As a result, an actor can easily slip into a two-dimensional character where those idiosyncrasies define them.  Fortunately, while each of this fine group doesn’t shy away from their character’s individual peculiarity, they do manage to elevate it beyond a simple caricature.

The Cast of the Arts Club production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo by Jo-Ann Richards.


Each of the cast of spellers gets their own chance center stage and while the songs are mostly forgettable, highlights included “I’m Not That Smart” featuring Crittenden as Leaf Coneybear and, in one of the rarer serious moments, Neff’s Olive Ostrovsky seeks her parent’s love in a touching rendition of the simply titled “The I Love You Song”.

Vincent Tong brings down the house in the second act opener “My Unfortunate Erection” and Josh Epstein continues to prove his comedic worth as the nasally-challenged William (“It’s pronounced Bar-FAY”) Barfee whose “magic foot” gives him, forgive me, a leg up on his competition.

Rosie Simon perhaps plays the most stereotypically Vancouver character as Marcy Park, the Asian over-achiever who looks to Jesus for divine guidance and we delight in her decision to break away from her stereotype.  For me, Simon had one of the best signing voices of the night, in an ensemble of great voices, with a winning “I Speak Six Languages”.

Rounding out the group of kids is Alison MacDonald as Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre, the president of her school’s gay-straight alliance.  MacDonald captures the child on the brink as her two fathers prove that same-sex couples can be just like any other – pushing their children to excel for their own gratification rather than for any benefit to their offspring.  In one of several cleverly inserted local references, MacDonald also gets to ponder why increased gaming revenues for the British Columbia government means less money for the arts.

Helping them along the way is Sara-Jeanne Hosie and Brind Linds as the former spelling bee champ Rona Lisa Peretti and Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, just returning from his forced sabbatical.  And finally, “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Michael Blake) escorts each of the kids off stage as they lose with some advice and a juice box.

There are also a number of un-credited characters that make an appearance but I’m not going to spoil that surprise.  Suffice to say, it made for some rather funny moments on stage and was definitely an audience pleaser.

Musical Director Bruce Kellett and his small band, hidden behind the basketball hoop in Yvan Morissette’s great little gymnasium set, are once again spot-on and Marsha Sibthorpe’s lighting design easily takes us from the bright antiseptic lights of the school’s gym to the more personal moments of each character.  Erin Macklem gets to have just as much fun with the costumes as the cast does with the text, right down to the furry ears on Leaf Coneybear’s helmet.

Traditionally performed in a single act, Director Michael Shamata has chosen to break his version into two, making the second act perhaps a bit heavy with its more serious content.  But even with his decision to split the show, Shamata manages to pull everything he can from this wonderful cast, not allowing the more serious parts to weigh it down; for really, it is in its silliest moments that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee works best.

For those that prefer their comedy a little more highbrow, I suggest you stick to Beatrice and Benedick under the tents in Vanier Park.  But for pure fun, you can’t go wrong with this hilarious trip back to a-d-o-l-e-s-c-e-n-c-e with the “kids” from Putnam County.

4 Out of 5 Stars The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Arts Club Granville Island Stage
June 17 to July 31, 2010

Tickets are $25 and $45. Call the Arts Club Box Office at 604.687.1644 or visit

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