Review: Saskatoon Summer Players fall comedy spells success, even through hiccups

(left to right, top to bottom) Jory Litt-Jukes, Ciera Vadnais, Abby Osika, Forrest Hiebert, Andrew Batycki, and Riel Fidler star in Saskatoon Summer Players' production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" running until Nov. 13, 2022 at the Broadway Theatre. (Supplied / Photo courtesy of Saskatoon Summer Players)

Disclaimer: The author of this review has volunteered with this theatre company in the past. He is not involved with, and has no stake in, this production.

It’s a musical! It’s a comedy! It’s a spelling bee! It’s … an oddly-paced production, but the Saskatoon Summer Players’ fall musical keeps the audience in stitches with hilarious songs and sharp-witted ad-libbing. 

SSP’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on Wednesday night at the Broadway Theatre brought the audience in out of the cold and kept the house entertained from start to finish. The show follows a group of young overachievers with their own unique spelling techniques and home lives competing in their annual spelling bee — and learning more than some new words along the way.

How did SSP pull it off? Let’s spell it out.

Euphonious; adjective. Pleasing to the ear. 

SSP did a fine job assembling talented singers from the volunteer community to add some nice tunes to a wordy show. Spelling Bee has the definition of an ensemble cast, and each major character had their opportunity to own the stage. The solo songs were excellent, so they each took the most of those opportunities. 

Special praise needs to be given to Elise Parsonage as former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Peretti, who kicks off the show with a crystal-clear soprano and jumps in and out of songs throughout with ease. 

Another standout voice is Jory Litt-Jukes as the proud, in-the-throes-of-puberty Chip Tolentino. But it was Riel Fidler’s turn as the quiet Olive Ostrovsky that really plucked at the heartstrings. Fidler’s magnificent ballad in the second act — supported by Litt-Jukes and Parsonage — was without a doubt the musical pinnacle of the evening, a credit to Fidler’s singing and acting. 

Chucklesome; adjective. Causing or intended to cause laughter. 

Speaking of Parsonage, this show would not have been successful without her and Kevin Bode as Peretti and the irascible vice principal Panch, respectively. The first act was much slower than the second, and might have become unbearably so if Parsonage and Bode hadn’t kept everyone laughing with some great comedic timing. 

That’s not to say the rest of the cast didn’t have their own funny moments (it’s hard to watch and listen to a song about erections without laughing once or twice), but Parsonage and Bode kept an occasionally clunky script moving in the right direction. 

Acknowledgement; noun. The act of acknowledging something or someone. 

The show was a ton of fun, but it must be acknowledged that it had a few hiccups. The first act, which included audience participation in the spelling bee, felt unwieldy. Transitions between scenes and songs came and went with a nearly-audible thunk, and the first half dragged on too long before a high-octane second act had a chance to blow the audience away. 

While the singers all shone spectacularly in their solos, the group numbers didn’t have the same sparkle. Whether it was getting used to the space or to a live audience, the singers were just enough out of sync with each other and the orchestra in the large-scale songs for it to be noticeable. 

The choreography in the show, limited though it was, didn’t seem to fit with everything else going on. It might have helped to have less line-and-formation dancing and a little more free-flowing movement, since the rest of the show is so silly and flexible already. 

Idiosyncrasy; noun: an individualizing characteristic or quality. 

This is not a large-scale song-and-dance production like Mamma Mia!, nor is it a deep musical drama like Les Misérables. It’s truly fun and unique, more akin to a “Saturday Night Live” sketch show than a Broadway musical. The talented ensemble cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee shows you don’t need fifty performers to bring a theatre to life — or to bring the audience to fits of raucous laughter. 

If you’re a fan of stand-up comedy, this is a show that should pique your interest. Spelling Bee gains speed and energy from start to finish. If the slow first act can be attributed to first-show jitters, this is a fabulous production that will make any audience member with a pulse laugh out loud for the rest of the run. 

The Saskatoon Summer Players production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs until Nov. 13th at the Broadway Theatre. Tickets are available online at broadwaytheatre.ca.

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