Thursday, January 31, 2008

Globe Gives Average Grade for Spelling

Critic Paula Citron calls The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2008) "F-L-U-F-F" in her review for the Globe and Mail:

"The show follows the fortunes of six elementary students (and four audience volunteers) in their quest to win the county spelling bee and so become eligible for the national competition in Washington. The three adults are host Rona Lisa Peretti (Roberta Duchak), a real-estate agent and former spelling-bee participant; Douglas Panch (James Kall), the school vice-principal moderator; and Mitch Mahoney (Kevin Smith Kirkwood), a gangsta from the 'hood doing community service. The latter's job is to dispense a hug and a juice box to the losers.

"The trick is to get the audience volunteers [including theatre critic Michael Posner] eliminated on cue with some really difficult words so the show can carry on. These good sports are around long enough to participate in some songs and choreography, which is certainly amusing. Their presence also gives the real actors a chance to improvise with fictional facts about the volunteers' lives.

"The rules allow the spellers to ask for a definition and to hear the word used in a sentence. My favourite part of the show is Mr. Panch reading those sentences, which are bizarre to say the least. 'Put down the phylacteries, Billy, because we're Episcopalian.' Even the romance-obsessed Miss Peretti comes out with a good one that, intoned in a dreamy voice, goes something like, 'I entered the dawn, but it turned out to be crepuscule' (twilight).

"[William] Finn's bouncy songs have serviceable if unmemorable tunes, but his lyrics are quite clever. Unfortunately, not every word was articulated by the cast, which is quite irritating. Dan Knechtges's banal choreography is hindered by Beowulf Boritt's bleacher/table set, the components of which have to be rolled out of the way to make room onstage. Jennifer Caprio's delightful costumes, however, are spot on.

"My problem with [Rachel] Sheinkin's book, despite its obvious entertainment aspects, is that it doesn't know what it wants to be, which makes for a disjointed experience. The slapstick/absurdist humour collides with the more satiric/social-statement side and it's not a good match. Spelling Bee does touch on some serious problems in the youth culture, particularly the treatment of outsiders, pushy and/or indifferent parents, the destructive power of competition and so on. Unfortunately, the Sturm und Drang moments don't ring true amid the general high jinks. Then there are the political and cultural references (with George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton taking the most hits), which seem like random add-ins.

"At best, Spelling Bee is a fun night out performed by an energetic cast, which, after all, isn't such a bad thing."

Paula Citron gives it 3 1/2 stars.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2008) runs until February 10 at the Elgin Theatre as part of the inaugural Dancap season.

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