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