A Bee C energy

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Brisbane Musical Theatre)

Emerge Church

July 6 – 9

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is, audience members are told in its titular opening number, a very big undertaking. This is not just for the character competitors in the fictional competition, but actually any company choosing to present the popular musical comedy as part of its programming. With music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman with additional material by Jay Reiss, the show is one of much acclaim. The winner of the Tony and the Drama Desk Awards for Best Book, chronicles an eclectic group of six mid-pubescent (young adults playing) characters vying for the spelling championship at the geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley Middle School, which is itself being run by three equally odd-ball grown-ups.

As contestants gather against the appropriately simplistic staging, rules are outlined from competition host and former winner Rona Lisa Peretti (Naomi Cadoo-Dagley) in ‘My Favorite Moment of the Bee’ and the competition begins, inset with revelation of the contestant’s unique strategies for spelling success and their individual back stories. And the rest is simply joyful. The cast is great and, under Mark Beilby’s musical direction the band is a treat, bringing the musical’s tuneful score to life, with songs like the choralesque ‘My Friend, the Dictionary’ and more rollicking “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor”. As always, however, it is ‘Pandemonium’ that resonates most, both musically and in its subject matter, as the contestants all come together in protest realisation that the best spellers don’t necessarily win.  

The musical’s subject matter may be niche, but is relatable in its familiarity, especially in its exaggerated characterisation. And while flashbacks do give characters backstories through ‘every character gets a song’ type ongoing exposition, there are easily-recognisable stereotypes to help the adueince along. Connor Bingham’s William Barfee (it’s pronounced Bar-FAY), for example, has a Dwight Schrute energy in his idiosyncratic veneer of superiority, but also underlying vulnerability.

Committed characterisation ensures the all performances as engaging as they are distinct. Of particular note is Kristen Cleeson as Logainee Schwartzy, the youngest contestant. She gives the politically aware speller a Rachel Berry energy, perfectly capturing her tenancy for hyperbole and over-complication in a committed performance that makes use of every opportunity to react and interact in inflated character. Similarly, Jordan Gleeson makes gentle ‘Not that Smart’ home-schooled, hippy Leaf Coneybear a crowd favourite, even entertaining the audience at interval with his skateboarding skills and show off of his special spelling shorts, endearing him to the extent that there is audible opening night audience response to his character’s disappointments. And light and shade is provided by Ashlee Herman’s contrast as the quiet but quirky word-loving dreamer Olive Ostrovsky, of little means or support from home.

What really makes the Spelling Bee experience complete, however, is the show’s audience interaction (agreed to before things begin, so there is no need to be on-edge) as individuals are called forth to be spellers themselves in Act One. The funniest moments come, however, from often inappropriate and drily-humorous definitions and example sentences and responses from competition judge, Vice Principal Douglas Panch, returning to the Bee after an incident five years prior. Indeed, Jose De Andrade’s comic timing and quick-fire improvised responses to each night’s guest speller sections, re spot-on, adding much to show’s pace and infectious energy.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a fast-paced and very funny show for musical lovers, but also people who maybe don’t think they like theatre. Its running time is more palatable than the usual musical fare and it bubbles with effervescent energy. While some characters and songs are perhaps unnecessary, there is an undeniable heart at the core of its charm and its updated cultural references ensures that Brisbane Musical Theatre’s production remains is a thoroughly entertaining musical comedy experience.

2020 aplenty

New Year.png

While I am well into planning what West End shows to see in 2020, I know that Brisbane theatre has plenty of its own highlights coming. This is what I am most looking forward to seeing (so far) in the year to come:

1. Be More Chill (Phoenix Ensemble)

I just missed seeing the sci-fi teen musical on Broadway, so until the Phoenix Ensemble’s late 2020 production will have to live in anticipation of the Evan Hansen heir with last year’s elaborate Tony Awards homage to the show’s Michael in the Bathroom solo.

2. 25th Annual Spelling Bee (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

I love this musical comedy and its oddball characters … fearless spellers at a fictional spelling bee who love scary words. It is a peppy frolic of colour, music and fun that I am sure Brisbane Arts Theatre will bring to vibrant life come late 2020.

3. Hello Dolly! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

There has been a great display of on-stage talent in recent Queensland Musical Theatre shows and I am yet to see the enduring musical theatre hit and appreciate how it has earned its exclamation point.

4. Emerald City (Queensland Theatre)

Nobody does drama better than Australia’s own David Williamson and given that the Melbourne Theatre Company co-pro revival of his 1987 classic opens in early February, we don’t have long to wait to consider the worth of sacrifice for success and fame.

5. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

… the theatre coup of the year, to which anyone what has read the smash-hit, triumphant Australian novel, loosely based on Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood, will attest. #theraversareright

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.