Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
To John Wamsley, now more than ever, spelling counts!
This recent graduate of the Sheridan College-University of Toronto Theatre and Drama Studies program (and The Office aficionado) is a versatile triple-threat. He can toggle effortlessly between Shakespeare, stage musicals and everything in between. And he’s about to take the stage at Hart House Theatre as “Chip” Tolentino in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the hit musical comedy chronicling the adolescent angst of six eclectic competitive spellers, each with a unique motive for entering the spelldown.
Bee started as the improvisational play C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E by Rebecca Feldman. Feldman’s concept was then developed into a musical with a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn. “It really makes sense for this to have evolved into a musical because improv is so heavily rooted in unity. Musicals are, too,” Wamsley notes. “When we sing these songs collectively, it’s like we’re all of one mind, spilling all of our fears and anxieties about the Bee and about growing up onto the stage.”
Memories of pubescent confusion must be imprinted on our collective psyche. Since debuting on Broadway in 2005, Bee has become a critical and audience favourite for its frank, funny portrayal of the awkwardness of adolescence. The Broadway production enjoyed a 3-year run and earned six Tony Award nominations, winning two (including Best Book) along with a Grammy Award nomination for the original Broadway cast album. And based on Bee productions worldwide, audiences continue to empathize and commiserate with the quirky spellers. Wamsley is “really excited” for Toronto audiences to experience this production: “I’m so in awe of everyone involved and so easily sucked into a lot of these moments in the show because of this incredible group of actors. Yes,” he insists, “this artistic team is outstanding and a dream to work with.”
In direct contrast to the length of its title, the musical itself is a tight, one-act romp built around emotionally revealing songs showcasing Finn’s shrewd, wry lyrics. The spelling bee is the only event that will let this rag-tag band of outsiders – each with a quirky conundrum and unique physical tick – fit in and stand out. Each solo number discloses a distinct personality and backstory, and clarifies the reason the Bee is so important to the singer. “These kids, while all are very, very unique, are so similar. We just want to be kids, and we want to be heard,” Wamsley explains: “This musical does an incredible job of showing that.”
Emotions will run high, and competition will be fierce. Words will be spelled. And misspelled. There will be dancing – and an appearance by Jesus (also played by Wamsley). All before one 12-year-old is declared champion. Will it be Wamsley’s Charlito “Chip” Tolentino, who is a Boy Scout and Bee incumbent? “There’s a lot on the line for Chip,” Wamsley notes, describing Chip as that “well-rounded, over-confident overachiever” that everyone knew in school. Chip has a big reputation to live up to, since he won last year’s Spelling Bee. This, along with every pubescent boy’s worst nightmare coming true in full public view, adds up to extraordinary pressure. In particular, Wamsley empathizes with Chip’s need for consistency, noting that it is the inconsistency in this Bee that “really throws him for a loop.” However, one great advantage of the role is that Chip is struck with so many different discoveries.”This musical really gives actors a ton to play around with, and we sort of get to rediscover our own adolescence in the process,” he offers, admitting that the naiveté and innocence have been fun to navigate through.
Joining Wamsley is a skilled ensemble of adults channelling their inner child to bring these kids to life. At first, Braelyn Guppy as Marcy Park seems the most likely to win the Bee, since she has skipped two grades and speaks six languages. Vanessa Campbell is Olive Ostrovsky, a shy overachiever who has to take the bus alone to get to the Bee. (Her father is working late, and her mother is in an Indian ashram on a 9-month spiritual journey.) Erin Humphry plays Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the politically-motivated yet chronically nervous Gay-Straight Alliance leader with two over-achieving dads. Finally, Hugh Ritchie is the nerdy, quasi-bully-ish, larger-than-life nemesis William Barfee; and Kevin Forster‘s Leaf Coneybear might not be the smartest or the best speller, but his endearing personality distinguishes him from his more aggressive competitors in the Bee and in his family.
Rounding out the 9-member cast are three adult characters. Amy Swift is Moderator Rona Lisa Perretti, a former Spelling-Bee champion who now sells real estate. Art Carlson is Vice Principal Douglas Panch, returning to the Bee as the official Word Pronouncer after a mysterious 5-year hiatus. And Carson Betz is the official Comfort Counsellor Mitch Mahoney, an ex-convict who fulfills community service by soothing the eliminated spellers with kind words and consolation juice boxes. (As is customary, certain actors playing the major characters double as minor characters, such as parents and siblings.)
So why does Bee continue to strike such a unanimous chord? “Growing up, we re-experience loss, or heartbreak, or victories over time, right?,” Wamsley offers. “For many of these kids, this is the first time that they’re experiencing these emotions. That’s a really compelling element to the show that I think audiences . . . really hold on to.” In addition to this universal theme, there’s a second great reason: the show relies on audience participation. This leads to improv and unpredictability, and requires a different set of acting skills from the actors. It also makes each performance unique.”We get audience members to partake in the Bee with us,” he explains of the interactive component. At each performance, four “guest spellers” are chosen and given easy words to spell, eliciting eye rolls, disgruntled groans and disparagement from the six child spellers. The audience interactivity ratchets up the suspense while compounding the hilarity and communal feeling: Like it or lump it, we are in this together. Wamsley describes the “simple” selection process: “we do a full background check, compatibility test, take them through a grueling obstacle course, and throw them in the deep end. And THEN we make them spell.”
Then, a broad smile: “Kidding! Don’t worry. It’s fun!” Yes, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is uproarious fun – and not the least because it conjures the awkwardness of every adolescence, when the glories of life are not yet weddings, home purchases or promotions. Bee reminds us of the cachet of small victories: school events, being picked for a team, not being excluded as a misfit, being understood by your parents – or not being frozen by the curveball of a multisyllabic word of Greek origin.
In middle-school, guts is glory. And at its core, Bee is about seeing the spellers for the guts of who they are, rather than the surface of who they at first seem to be. The musical endures because of the poignant depth within its irreverence, which it expresses without lapsing into sentimentality. Wamsley’s childlike summation is spot-on: “This show really takes you for a ride, and it’s a ton of fun!”
Take his word for it, and sit a spell at Hart House Theatre. Spelling Bee is a W-I-N-N-E-R. No definition required.
Rapid Round with John Wamsley
News You Can Use
What: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee; Music and Lyrics by William Finn; Book by Rachel Sheinkin; Conceived by Rebecca Feldman; Additional material by Jay Reiss; based on “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” an original play by the Farm; Directed by Cory Doran
Featuring: John Wamsley (Chip Tolentino / Jesus / Dance Captain), Erin Humphry (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere), Kevin Forster (Leaf Coneybear / Carl dad), Hugh Ritchie (William Barfee), Braelyn Guppy (Marcy Park), Vanessa Campbell (Olive Ostrovsky), Amy Swift (Rona Lisa Perretti /Olive’s mom), Art Carlson (Vice Principal Douglas Panch), Carson Betz (Mitch Mahoney / Dan dad / Olive’s dad)
Who: Audiences 13 years and older
When: November 10-25, 2017; running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, ON M5S 3H3
Info and Tickets: HartHouse.ca
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya