Putnam County: nerds rule

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (PCSB) is not just a musical but also an irresistible evocation of youth, concealed erections and performance anxiety.  A spelling contest is the microcosm, and in this world the nerds rule: not unlike music theatre itself come to think of it.


The students surround the teacher at the Spelling Bee (photo: Scott Gorman): clockwise from left, Vanessa Campbell, John Wamsley, Erin Humphry, Amy Swift, Braelyn Guppy, Hugh Ritchie and Kevin Forster

Hart House Theatre opened their production Friday night, with tonight’s second performance concluding the first weekend of three.  In some respects PCSB is every bit as grueling as its subject, 100 minutes of fast patter, flashy dance-moves and tight cues for laughs without intermission, to put Rossini to shame.  My companion commented that it’s like a modern opera in some respects, a very fine-tuned machine to tell a charming little story, amuse you with its humour and please you with its tunefulness.

Considering that the run has just begun they’re already very tight on the HH stage.  While tonight’s show surely included lots of friends & family –packing the theatre –the laughs were huge and I don’t just mean my own.  There’s lots of glory to share between Director Cory Doran, Music Director Giustin MacLean and Choreographer Sabrina Hooper.  This is a high energy show, whether in those moments when one person is trying to spell a word, or when the company starts dancing to a song laying someone’s emotions bare.  As far as I could tell there were no dead moments, no false starts, nothing that didn’t run smoothly except for some facial hair that may have been deliberately contrived to set up a series of gags.  And if that was a real problem (I have my doubts), they effortlessly turned it into an asset.

Speaking of nerds, the cast offers a full range of quirky people, possibly reminding you of someone you know.

  • Logainne, the politically outspoken girl with gay parents
  • Chip, the eager boy with the bulge in his pants
  • Leaf, the boy with the inferiority complex
  • William, the boy whose spelling is infallible, but whose name is always mispronounced
  • Marcy, the girl so perfect that she dreams of failure
  • Olive, the girl whose parents don’t show up but who loves her dictionary
  • Rona, the teacher who is a former winner
  • The Vice-Principal who needs a restraining order
  • Mitch, the ex-con performing community service

The show gives everyone at least one great moment.


Carson Betz with the Putnam County company (photo: Scott Gorman)

Carson Betz as Mitch, our ex-con, has a stunning voice used to great advantage.  John Wamsley as Chip gets lots of laughs, especially in a brief cameo that stops the show near the end (if I tell you more I’d spoil the joke).  Braelyn Guppy is equal to the challenges as Marcy, managing to be impressive yet still very likable.   Vanessa Campbell’s Olive and Kevin Forster’s Leaf both win us over with their tender vulnerability.  And then there’s Hugh Ritchie’s quirky rebel William, and Erin Humphrey’s intense Logainne.  Amy Swift & Art Carlson as the two teachers function as our hosts, to keep the contest and the show running smoothly, almost like stage management.

PCSB runs until November 25th at Hart House Theatre.


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