on Wednesday 22 October for The Journal
Brilliantly interpreted by the Edinburgh University Theatre Company, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is based around a highly competitive spelling competition with six quirky and even downright bizarre participants. It isn’t often that you find yourself reviewing a show where you are dragged on stage for 20-odd minutes, but it was certainly a novel experience to participate as a guest speller, being made to dance and spell on stage to the audience’s great amusement.
Victimisation aside, the cast was made up of some highly talented individuals, representing a rather bizarre mix of socially awkward, talented young word lovers. They all have apparently read or swallowed the entire dictionary, in the hope of getting their hands on the Spelling Bee cup, the prize of this tense competition. Never have an audience been so emotionally involved in the result of a county word-based contest, which also follows the anxieties and development of the young characters and adjudicators Rona Lisa Perretti (Roz Ford), one time champion of the Bee still basks in her former glory, and the troubled Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Henry Conklin).
The songs, accompanied by a band of some of Edinburgh’s best young instrumentalists, were very funny and showed off the versatile voices of the cast. Particular highlights included Marcy’s ‘I Speak Six Languages’, including some real acrobatic prowess and Schwarzand Grubenierre’s (Kate Pasola) heart-breaking rag-like ‘The I Love You Song’. Funniest of all was ‘My Unfortunate Erection’, where Chip Tolentino (Nitai Levi) laments his ‘unfair’ disqualification from the Bee.
Overall, it was a hilarious and excellently staged show with the perfect cast. A wonderful achievement in musical theatre by directors Becca Simmonds and Jimi Mitchell that included some memorable individual performances.
on Tuesday 21 October for All Edinburgh Stage
There is plenty of talent on stage in the EUTC’s vibrant, crowd-pleasing production of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is upstairs at the Roxy to Friday evening.
Pleasingly enough, the most exciting elements of Becca Simmonds and Jimi Mitchell’s production are the ones over which they have had the most control – the choreography and the blocking.
As directors, they have done much to take what can be a rather static show and give it a strong dynamic as they bring out its full comedic potential.
Set, as you would reasonably expect, in Putnam County during the annual spelling bee, the show focuses on the hopes and inner thoughts of six youngsters taking part.
The bee is overseen by Rona Perretti – herself a former Spelling Bee champion who won, as she daydreams regularly, by spelling the word “syzygy” at the third bee. Roz Ford gives Rona a feisty, somewhat crazed demeanour, setting the tone for the whole production.
She is aided by the sad figure of Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who has overcome his previous difficulties and is in a “much better place” as he takes the chair as the official word pronouncer.
Panch is a key role, as he has to deal with the random quartet of patsies drawn from the audience who join the six spellers in the bee. Henry Conklin does a superb job, hinting at past sordid misdemeanours while smoothly ad-libbing in order to ensure that the destinies of the four in the bee coincide with the structure of the show.
As each contestant is eliminated they get a hug and some juice from Mitch Mahoney – who is performing the role of comfort councillor as part of his community service. It is a shadowy role, but Jay Cameron gives it some depth and, when called on to sing, brings on a big, substantial vocal presence.
The half dozen slightly-crazed American misfits are well cast. The standout performer is Scott Meenan as Leaf Coneybear, who is only in the final by default and whose ability to spell correctly comes to him in trance.
Meenan’s real ability, however, is in his doubling as one of the fathers of fellow contestant, Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre. Although he changes character on stage, you would be forgiven for thinking he was two different actors.
Logaine, herself, is a key role and Kate Maria Pasola ensures that she has real sense of the driven about her – with both her dads (Jay Cameron plays the second) fighting and bitching over her tutorship for the bee.
The show is full of comedy, from previous winner Chip Tolentino (Nitai Levi) who departs the bee first when he is embarrassed by an unfortunate erection when called up to spell, to Marcy Park (Sarah Couper) who also departs early when she realises – in a vision of Christ – that it is alright to fail, and deliberately mis-spells a word.
Arguably the role with the most comic potential is William Barfee. With numerous personal health problems, he has a unique method of spelling out a word with his foot, before saying it out loud. Campbell Keith is strong enough here, but pushes the comedy too hard, somewhat to the detriment of the resulting humour. It is a good performance, but there is more subtlety available than he utilises.
Part of Keith’s difficulty is that, like all the performers, he struggles with the sound levels. The performers are not miked-up – although there are microphones on stage for the spellers and the adjudicators. In the intimate stage upstairs in the Roxy this should present no problem, but unfortunately although the band – tucked away in the wings – deliver clear support, they are also somewhat overpowering.
where they really let rip
If Simmonds and Mitchell have brought out the comedy from their performers, and the choreography during the fantasy and dream sequences is where they really let rip, they have paid slightly less attention to the underlying humanity of the show.
The humanity is there. Most notably in the nervous self-motivating Olive Ostrovsky who is excellently observed by Rachael Anderson as she laments the lack of attention she gets at home from her always-busy dad and self-obsessed mother.
The show has another potential element to it as well. The whole concept of competitive spelling is decidedly exploitative, in that rather nasty way in which children become an outlet for their parents own competitive edge. And this more nuanced idea, while glanced upon, has become rather lost in amidst all the glee.
That said, this is a thoroughly entertaining production which sends up an American institution with all the disrespect it deserves.
on Wednesday 22 October for The Student
A charmingly comic evening combining intelligent dialogue, audacious caricatures of overreaching adolescents, and the cut-throat business of spelling words including ‘weltanschauung’ and ‘gardyloo,’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee sizzles with wit and insight. Following the highs and lows of six competing youngsters for the title of champion, this comedy plays out rather like an episode of Toddlers & Tiaras; the same pushy parents; the same abject terror in the eyes of the contestants, and the same notion that nobody has any idea what kind of disorder could erupt when one young hopeful is asked to spell ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis’.
The direction of Mitchell and Simmonds is a testament to the Broadway original, possessing the same vivacity and professionalism that puts the show beyond the realms of amateur theatre. Seated to look down upon the stage, it is as if the viewer has been deliberately allowed a microscopic advantage to analyse each character and discover their idiosyncrasies. Watching each youth in his or her attempts to claim victorious is tumultuous and painful, but even more so in regard to the effect that it has upon the masters of the bee; former champion Rona Lisa Peretti, and Vice Principal Panch. Panch’s character is the standout performance, relishing perfectly in a dead-pan humour and soul-destroying dispassion that highlights the darker themes of loneliness and desperation that derive from the title of ‘Champion Speller’.
A certain amount of audience participation ignited and maintained the warm responses of the evening, keeping the stage abuzz with excited possibility as to whatever embarrassment was to follow. The selection of strong voices and glowing performances also helped to maintain the production up until the very end, by which point the theatre was blazing with cheers in support of the rise and prosperity of the nerd.