Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Alex Sorgo 15 February 2018

If Assassins is the only musical you see this week, then you are sadly missing out. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Magdalene’s Cripps Auditorium is an exceptional show as entertaining as it is genuinely touching.

The plot revolves around the quirky contestants of a children’s spelling competition, the characters sporadically bursting into song, or recounting the sad tales of their various difficult childhoods. The 6 adolescents, supplemented by 3 audience members, are all called upon to spell words from “cow” to “Mexican” to “Weltanschauung” (it’s a word – trust me), supplied to them by the deadpan and slightly disturbed Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Helena Fox). Also watching over proceedings is previous winner Rona Lisa Peretti (Mariam Abdel-Razak) as well as ‘comfort counsellor’ and delinquent Mitch Mahoney (Michelle Spielberg). As the Bee progresses into its final stage, the audience is treated to life-affirming story of friendship and newfound confidence in oneself, punctuated with hysterical musical numbers about erections and being polylingual.

Director, Leo Béar makes good use of what is a perhaps unconventional space in which to put on a musical. The problem of limited space on stage is solved by a fairly minimalist set and simple but effective choreography during group dance numbers which could otherwise have felt overcrowded. The lack of personal microphones for the singers is either a bold choice or a restriction well-dealt with. With the band positioned at the rear of the theatre, sitting at the front gives you a nice balance of sound, but as you go further back, the clarity falls off slightly. The need for greater projection, due to lack of microphones, also led to some unfortunate over-singing during a couple of the solo musical numbers. This is no great criticism, however, and the only others that may be seriously levelled at the show are perhaps slight inconsistencies of accent and speech impediment in one or two places.

Aside from these small complaints, this show is an utter delight. The vocal quality in the singing is fantastic across the board, and particular praise must be reserved for Abdel-Razak, Spielberg and Jamie Williams as ‘Olive Ostrovsky,’ whose trio performance of ‘The I Love You Song’ was incredibly touching. All the characters were well-defined both through their costumes (Rachel Tils especially as ‘Leaf Coneybear,’ sporting a wonderfully weird ensemble of bike helmet, cape and tartan trousers) but also via their performances. Particularly enjoyable are Basil Mustafa as the confident, albeit sniffly ‘William Barfee’ and Phoebe Schenk whose turn as ‘Logaine’ the put-upon daughter of two overbearing fathers was very charming. William Debnam is full of surprises as ‘Chip Tolentino’ and you will have to see the show to witness him in all his glory. Susi Mauer’s portrayal of the highly strung ‘Marcy Park’ is superb, making the climax of her arc all the more entertaining. Another highlight is Fox’s delivery of punchlines, adding a rich vein of dry wit to a show that relies mostly on wacky and bizarre humour.

Audience participation is always a risky business, and while it is fair to say this production doesn’t utilise it to its full potential, in many ways this simply isn’t important, and there were some funny moments as a result, but these were largely overshadowed by the scripted elements of the performance.

Without question, this is a brilliantly put together show, which, if the level of performance can be sustained, will leave all of their audiences with a warm feeling as they leave the theatre.