Putnam is the place to bee

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Underground Productions)

Hamilton Town Hall

June 27 – July 12

Words are funny things … If you took the ‘w’ of answer and the ‘h’ in ghost and the extra ‘a’ in aardvark and the ‘t’ of written, you could keep saying ‘what’, but nobody would hear you because the whole word would be silent. And sometimes even with pronunciation, example sentences and language of origin information, they are difficult to spell correctly, particularly when they are the obscure names of South American rodents

This is both the premise and the joy of the one-act musical comedy “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, presented by Underground Productions. Having made it past the bake sale and registration tents outside, audience members enter Hamilton Town Hall to see a menagerie of pre-pubescent spelling bee competitor characters (played by adult actors) taking the stage to battle for the chance to complete in the national spelling bee. And characters they are as, under the direction of Danielle Carney, the ensemble morphs into the quirky, fearless spellers who love scary words.

The show centres on a fictional spelling bee in the geographically ambiguous Putnam Middle School. Six quirky adolescents (along with some audience volunteers) compete in the Bee, run by three equally individual grown-ups. All the entrants are there because of their extraordinary ability and love of language. Most are experienced spellers with their own strange strategies for countering the difficult words with which they are presented. They realise, however, that the best spellers don’t necessarily win.

It is pure joy to watch this cast, especially as each gets a moment in the spotlight, giving background and depth to the characters. From the youngest competitor, lisping, enthusiastic social activist Lorainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, who has two helicopter dads (hence the ‘and’ in place of a hyphen in her name), to Olive Ostrosky, a dreamer who escapes the loneliness of absentee parents with her friend the dictionary (for the words in the dictionary are the friends that she’ll have forever), the eccentricities of each character are shared with a combination of humour and sensitivity.

Spelling Bee

Matty Johnston is impressive as William Barfee (it’s pronounced Bar-FAY) who spells by writing words with his magic foot and Ethan Brinkworth makes for a delightfully watchable home-schooled Leaf Coneybear, capturing the sweetness, innocence and gentle spirit of the loveable but clueless character. As Vice Principal Douglas Panch, Jack Kelly delivers many of the show’s most hilarious lines in the form of inappropriate example sentences, while as moderator Rona Lisa Peretti, the number-one realtor in Putnam County and a former Spelling Bee Champion herself, Danika Saa showcases an impressive voice that ranges with ease from powerful to poignant.

There’s plenty of sparkle in this production. The costumes are as diverse and eclectic as the characters.Conversational lyrics and catchy melodies make the music accessible, while songs such “My Friend, The Dictionary,” and “I Speak Six Languages” capture the adolescent despair of realisation that the chaotic life of a 12-year-old is a random, unfair pandemonium in which they struggle to be smart, be cool and remarkably a joy in social situations

It is of little surprise that the Underground Productions’ season of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has featured so many sold out shows. Not only is the peppy Tony Award winning show a riotous frolic of colour, music and fun, but it features some strong performances from a cohesive cast of oddball but loveable characters.

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