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Regional Reviews by Gavin Logan

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Also see our interview with Gavin Crawford

Almost everyone remembers some terrifying moment from their childhood where they were unwittingly thrust into the spotlight by an overzealous parent or two, those interminable adult parties where a child is brought out and forced to sing a song for an ancient crone who is purported to be a great aunt perhaps. But how many of us can claim to have been thrust into the blinding, terrifying spotlight of a county spelling bee? In William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's brilliant score and script for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the agonies and victories of early adolescence are revealed in all of their mysterious, painful, glorious splendour. Happily, in the hands of an extremely talented cast and creative team, Theatre Calgary's production of this heartwarming and hilarious musical is one of the funniest, most-successful productions I have seen in a long time.

The cast is uniformly excellent. The emcees, Rona Lisa Peretti and Assistant Principal Douglas Panch, are played to perfection by Marcia Tratt and Doug McKeag. Miss Tratt has a gorgeous, crystal clear soprano that is effectively displayed throughout the show. I found myself eagerly anticipating each reprise of "My Favorite Moment of the Bee" just to revel in her beautiful, lingering final notes. McKeag, too, is hysterically over-the-top as the assistant principal who has overcome a nervous breakdown.

The show's star power is delivered via Gavin Crawford, familiar to most Canadians for his work on CBC's "This Hour Has 22 Minutes." He brings a delightful innocence to the show in the character of Leaf Coneybear, the adorable twit who can't seem to concentrate on much, and is only in the bee to prove to his family he's not the dumb kid they all say he is. Crawford is well suited to the role, as he often portrays the teenaged outcast Mark Jackson on "22 Minutes." Crawford is adorably awkward, especially when he unexpectedly falls out of his seat at the top of the bleachers.

Also magnificent is Christian Goutsis as last year's winner Chip Tolentino, who is sadly ousted by a very "unfortunate protuberance." Goutsis, who last year appeared as Scotty in Evil Dead: The Musical, is spot on in his portrayal of the champion who unexpectedly blooms into teenaged adolescence at the sight of Marigold Coneybear. The audience was laughing so hard by the time Goutsis had finished singing his big song, "My Unfortunate Erection," that the final verse was almost completely lost. This is a good thing, as I was laughing just as hard as the rest of the audience.

The standout performances of the evening, however, belong to Thom Allison, whose portrayal of Mitch the Comfort Counselor is nothing short of outstanding, and Ksenia Thurgood who is heartbreakingly perfect as the sad, lonely and hapless Olive Ostrovsky. Allison left much of the audience gaping open-mouthed at the end of the first act when he delivered a simply outstanding "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor". His brilliant R&B soul voice is incredible, and Allison takes full advantage of Mitch's big moment to command the stage. Similarly, Thurgood leaves the audience awed with her heartbreaking rendition of "The I Love You Song," wherein Olive has a chance to imagine what it would be like if her absentee parents actually had a chance to tell her they cared. Thurgood is joined by Mother (Tratt) and Father (Allison) on stage in a dream sequence of particular depth, beauty and pathos. Considering the light-heartedness of the rest of the evening, this is a beautiful moment of true depth, sadness and power. I have a feeling this scene in particular will linger in the memories of many Theatre Calgary patrons for a long, long time.

Kudos to director Dean Paul Gibson, whose pacing and comic timing are impeccable. The show zips along at a wonderful pace, allowing the audience enough time to dwell on a joke where necessary, but never permitting the show to drag. The choreography by Lisa Stevens (of High School Musical fame) is exceptional also. Finally, a mention must be made of the ingenious set design, which turns the entire interior of the Max Bell Theatre into a Middle School gymnasium, complete with sports banners, basketball nets, and randomly strewn sporting equipment. The audience truly feels part of the proceedings, which is often difficult to achieve in an auditorium as large as the Max Bell theatre.

Those of you who have a chance should make their way e-x-p-e-d-i-e-n-t-l-y to Theatre Calgary to see this most s-p-l-e-n-d-i-f-e-r-o-u-s of offerings; the show is only here for a brief "spell," after all.

Theatre Calgary's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs in Calgary, Alberta through May 15th. For more information visit theatrecalgary.com.

--Gavin Logan



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