In review: 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
On Friday, June 5th I hit up Artscape Wychwood Barns to see a small production of William Finn's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Based on an improvisation play called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-L-E conceived by Rebecca Feldman, this show took the Tony Awards and Broadway by storm in 2005. I love this show, so it was a no-brainer to check it out.
This was the inaugural production for the No Strings Theatre's Emerging Artist Program, a program designed to "bridge the gap" between youth performers and emerging artists in musical theatre - much like a standard opera YAP. The company provides a platform for young new musical theatre artists to prepare a show, and reinforce the conditioning needed to successfully do a professional level.
Under the guidance of Susan Cuthbert (CATS!, Phantom of the Opera), Kate Carver (Canadian Opera Company, Essential Opera) and William Shookhoof (Opera By Request, North Toronto Institute of Music) the cast of ten put on a fun-filled show that's suitable for the whole family.
Cuthbert and intern/associate director Mary Askwith used the intimate theatre space at Artscape Wychwood Barns to the best of their ability. Spelling Bee isn't a particularly technically demanding show, so the bee is easily recreated with minimal sets and props. What sets the rest of the scene is up to the lighting, the costumes and the actors. Piano accompaniment was provided by Jonathan Corkal and suited the small intimate production perfectly. A student at Sheridan College himself, he has a bright future ahead of him in and out of the pit.
The actors were up to the challenge as well. There were some shaky moments and maybe a stop or two in the pace, but that's all part of learning 'the biz'. There were some standout performances though which made me really excited to see the cast grow into their fierce talents.
Charlotte Knight as the host of the Bee, Rona Lisa Peretti, was hysterical. It was nice to see Charlotte doing some broad comedy. Her improvisational chops were quite a surprise as she ad-libbed her way through banter with the audience and some of the other cast members. Her singing was top notch. I'm not entirely sure how much musical theatre experience Knight has on the whole, but she definitely should pursue more options as the style suits her quite well. As Vice Principal Donna Panch (Douglas in the original), Lizzie Moffatt was a comedic gem. Her stressed out, anxiety came through with aplomb. A fine actress finishing her studies, she was on point and I see a strong future for her in physical comedy. I think I like the female characterization better than when it's played by a man.
Stephane Gaudet as Leaf Coneybear and Tommy Amoroso as William Barfee showed some serious promise as character actors. Their extreme characterizations of these misfit spellers were solid, well thought out and committed. Amoroso's singing voice was bit of a surprise and holds some serious promise. Steven Bennet as Chip Tolentino had a bit of a false start, but possesses a young soulful voice with a lot of potential as well. It was great to see the cast pull together to get through that small hiccup. A sure sign of great young professional company. With the right vocal coaching, these three could be at the top of the game in Toronto.
I was also seriously impressed by Grace Park (Alene Degian), Olive Ostrovsky (Vicktoria Adam), and Logainne Schwartzandgrubbenniere (Nicki Hynes). The three ladies were strong singers at the the exciting part of their development where they're discovering the real power in their belt. Their characters were funny, excellent ad-libbers, and truthful. They all showed exciting promise as both character and lead actresses.
Co Founders Kelly Bedard and Denise Williams run No Strings Theatre year-round, and are currently enjoying their 10th anniversary of teaching our next crop of music theatre artists their way around a proscenium. They also have a number of other exciting projects on the go; they're working on a pit orchestra program for young players, for example.
Like most of us who work professionally in the field, I also was a student at a few programs very similar to what Bedard and Williams through No Strings is providing. It's a grounding that set me on the way to become the artist I am today who is blessed to work with the best in the country at what we do. These students also need that experience to keep our arts scene alive and healthy. Like most other arts organizations, No Strings Theatre is always willing to welcome your help, whether it's financially in the form of donations or buying tickets, or by volunteering your time.
It's a wonderful thing to have in Toronto and should be supported by all of us out there! Find more information on their website, and go see their summer program production of Sondheim's masterpiece, Into The Woods.