Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
PUBLISHED: 13:10 05 April 2019 | UPDATED: 13:13 05 April 2019
If you’ve ever wondered what crespuscule means, this is the show to watch - presented by Gallery Players at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich, until Saturday, April 6
It goes without saying that the USA is a country that celebrates competitiveness, it is no surprise, therefore that so many activities, especially for the young, are turned into competitions: glee club contests, cheerleader tournaments and spelling bees.
The creators of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin) have converted this national obsession into a delightful musical satire, pitching a motley group of mildly maladjusted American kids into the stressful hothouse of a spelling competition. Each of the adolescents has his or her own story, and, by the time the winner lifts the gleaming victor’s trophy, they have each told us, sometimes hilariously, often touchingly, of their hopes and fears.
Little Leaguer and would-be alpha male Chip Tolentino (Sam Brown) is last year’s champion, but he is sadly undone by an inconvenient stirring in his Boy Scout shorts; Logainne Schwatzangrubenierre (Ebony-Brooke Rivers) is the girl who can do everything – and proves it, too, in the space of one belting number (“I Speak Six Languages”),] by twirling a baton, dancing ballet, playing the piano and hoola-hooping while simultaneously solving a Rubik’s Cube; fidgety Leaf Coneybear (Dale Saunders) clearly has many challenges, but he also has an extraordinary gift for spelling the names of South American rodents; anally-retentive William Barfée (Wade Ablitt) whose uses his “magic” right foot to mark out his spellings; right-on activist Marcy Park (Aimee Salmon) champions her gay dads; and Olive Ostrovsky (Eliza Walker) is a loner with absentee parents who finds comfort in her dictionary.
In Gallery Players’ production all of these young spellers give superlative performances – not a weak link among them. Wade Ablitt has also provided the stylish choreography.
The “grown-ups” are equally talented. Jan Needle has a glorious, full voiced southern twang as ex-con Mitch Mahoney, enforcer of good behaviour and comforter to the losers, Phil Cory is comedy gold as the slightly creepy, stickler-for-the-rules question-master Vice Principal Douglas Panch returning after a five year absence – there was an “incident” at the 20th Annual contest but he’s “in a better place now” - while Clare Dungey radiates wholesome enthusiasm as moderator and one-time winner Rona Perretti and sings beautifully as Olive’s mother, joined by the fine-voiced Steve Watt as Olive’s dad.
Congratulations, too, to the four audiences members who were willing to risk embarrassment by joining the contestants on stage in the first half of the show.
Steve Wooldridge directs with a sure touch, the band under MD Olly Wood are splendid, and it all adds up to a hugely enjoyable evening, Educational, too - I have learned what syzygy means.