Theatre Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Playful charm, high good humour and practised skill are the hallmarks of this eminently entertaining show. “Spelling Bee” is a compact musical which only calls for a cast of nine.

Presented by Marie Clark Musical Theatre
Reviewed 27th October, 2017

Playful charm, high good humour and practised skill are the hallmarks of this eminently entertaining show. “Spelling Bee” is a compact musical which only calls for a cast of nine. However, this production punches well above its weight in theatrical energy and joy, thanks to Kristin Telfer’s direction, Sarah Whiteley’s musical direction, and a cast that works together beautifully. The spelling bee of the title is being held in a small American community, as imagined by a theatrical collective and shaped by Rachel Sheinkin’s book and William Finn’s neatly-calibrated lyrics and music. We are the competition’s audience, packed into a dreary school hall, watching anxious adolescent spelling geeks compete for a chance at the National finals.

As anyone who saw David Holman’s play “The Small Poppies” knows, there’s an art to casting adult actors to play children on stage with sincerity and truthfulness. Common dangers include pantomime-quality caricatures, and an awful self-regarding “aren’t-I-being-cute” affect. Telfer has chosen a diverse yet cohesive cast for her six kidults. Each one of them hands in a detailed, clear and unsentimental portrayal of their child character.. Ashleigh McFadden’s fat boy, mucosally-challenged and alienated; Emily-Jo Davidson’s bright little waif desperately trying to please her two achievement-driven dads; Shay Stonelaitken’s joyful hippie boy, clad in quirky homemade clothes, with the dopey affability of a spaniel pup; Naomi Crosby’s uber-focussed, fact-driven perfectionist, Angus Robson’s alpha-male-in-the-making, awash with more testosterone than he can handle; Alisa James’ forlorn yet faintly hopeful loner whose best friend is her dictionary – from this disparate bunch, Sheinkin’s book weaves broad comedy, gentle humour and genuine poignancy.

Of the three adult roles, the one that propels the whole night’s action with grace and elan is Sarah Wildy, playing Rona Lisa Peretti, teacher, ex-Spelling Bee champ, and MC for the event. Wildy’s acting is secure and sharp, and her voice is strong, clear, accurate, and capable of timbral subtleties. She radiates warmth and energy all night. She is, in effect, the spine of this production. Her black and silver shoes are an added bonus.

The task of consoling eliminated competition candidates falls to the Comfort Counsellor. Joseph Giblin plays him with gusto. He’s decked out as a tragic sort of bumble-bee, with regrettable head-dress, sad little black wings, and obligatory black & yellow striped T-shirt. Giblin’s character work is solid and comically believable, and his acting skill is further demonstrated by the flurry of quick-change extra roles he also manages with unflappable energy and ease. Jamie Wright plays Vice-Principal Douglas Panch. He oscillates between a fascist bully in his task as the spelling bee’s word-pronouncer, and a slightly weird but pleasant teacher. I think the show might have been even stronger and funnier if Panch had been played closer to the creepy slime-bag that the script implies.

Shannon Norfolk has designed a mean, joyless and utilitarian school gym hall set… and it’s just right for the show. It even has an elegant orthographic sight gag. See if you can spot it.

Sarah Whiteley’s musical direction is a model of understated elegance.  Her tempi are excellent throughout the piece, and her four musicians (two keyboards, multiple reeds and percussion) form a sensitive and secure foundation for all performers. Choral singing is excellent, and (amazing!) spoken and sung articulation is consistently clear, despite the required accents and characters’ speech defects.

If all the above isn’t enough to charm you, there’s the added fun of audience participation, a corps de ballet in fluffy white haloes doing a dream ballet sequence, and a hilarious cameo appearance by a low-rent, laid-back deity, who observes, “This isn’t the sort of thing that I care very much about”. I beg to differ.

A note to any of my male friends with a dicey prostate – running time is 100 minutes with no interval.

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Venue:  The Goodwood Institute
Season: 27th October – 4th November, 2017
Duration:  100 minutes  [no interval]
TicketsFull Price: $33:00 Concession$28:00
Bookings:   /   [email protected]


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