The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a hard sell. It’s a show with adults playing bizarre caricatured kids at a regional Spelling Bee in middle America, complete with audience interaction. Luckily, behind the premise lies an absolutely stellar score by William Finn, and an enchanting and comic story from Rachel Sheinkin.
But hard sell or not, this is a first-rate production. The casts performances as individuals, and as an ensemble, are remarkable, and alongside the musicality of this show, this is a show that delivers some fantastic comedy. The whole audience were laughing throughout the whole show, and whilst there’s camp humour, silliness, and also sheer madness at some points, this is a show with a dark side. Behind every caricatured character is a hint of tragedy that has made them who they are: absent parents, an abusive family, the pressure to succeed, loneliness, and the painful awkwardness of being in your early teens, there are pressures and experiences in this show, that although perhaps exaggerated, will resonate with every person in the room.
Knowing this show as I do, this is a hard score to perform – musically, the numbers cover a wide array of styles and genres, the harmonies are complex, and there are tempo and key changes a-plenty, so to hear the score performed so faithfully and brilliantly was such a great experience. This is a cast, who with two weeks rehearsal time (?!) have nailed their performances and it’s not at all fair to single any one of them out. That said, here are a few words on each of them…
Aaron Jenson (Chip Tolentino) plays awkward teenage boy brilliantly well, delivering the lines with great comic timing and has a great singing voice to match – singing a number about an unfortunate erection with great sincerity must be a challenge, but he does it so well! Lottie Johnson (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere) does such a fantastic job singing some damn tricky numbers, especially with added speech impediment, and perfectly captures the over-enthusiastic teachers’ pet character, plus her audience interaction was fun and charming, and she has a way of always catching your attention on stage. Danny Whelan (Leaf Coneybear) delivers a great performance in the show, his characterisation is pure fun, never breaking character as lovable, affable Leaf, and yet he also delivers a truly heartbreaking reprise of his number in Act 2; to bring such a range and versatility to a character that could easily be played as just childish oddball is a testament to his performance. TJ Lloyd (William Barfee) was a real standout in this show, his voice was one of the strongest in the ensemble, hitting every harmony so perfectly, and he has the added challenge of having one of the least likeable characters – he was such fun to watch, and a fantastically comic performer! Jeannie May (Marcy Park) also has the challenge of playing a character that, despite her claims she’s ‘not all business’, doesn’t enjoy the same whimsy and fun that the earlier characters can get away with. But that said, her song ‘I Speak Six Languages’, a song decrying the life of an habitual overachiever, was delivered so beautifully casually whilst May delivered an incredibly acrobatic routine, that it became a real highlight for me. Thea Jo Wolfe (Olive Ostrovsky) has the fortune to have one of the most beautiful songs in contemporary musical theatre (in my opinion!), the ‘I Love You’ number was delivered so heartbreakingly well by Wolfe that my company for the evening was in tears, and I had goosebumps throughout – Wolfe plays the part with pathos, sensitivity, and strikes a nice balance between competetiveness and the emotion of her situation.
The ‘adult’ cast features Elizabeth Chadwick (Rona Lisa Perrretti) who played the role of local Spelling Bee celebrity so pitch-perfectly, it was a real joy watching her perform. Chadwick must also be congratulated for taking the soprano line in the group numbers which, in this show is no mean feat, but there wasn’t a single note out, she sings her part beautifully. Inti Conde (Mitch Mahoney) has an incredible voice and this show is the perfect vehicle for him to show off his vocals, delivering a series of impressive performances that really stood out in the show. Michael Watson-Gray (Douglas Panch) completes the cast playing the word-announcer with great charm and comedy, ensuring some hugely funny audience participation, too.
I have to congratulate Adam Haigh, who as Director and Choreographer, has brought this show to life with such great imagination and sympathy for the characters that from the moment you walk into the theatre to the moment you leave, you feel a part of this mad world that he has so carefully created. Kieran Stallard’s brilliant musical direction is evident in the strength of his cast, many of these numbers were better in live performance than they are on the original Broadway cast album, some by leaps and bouds, and that’s a testament to the hard work that has been put in by the whole team. Victoria Francis’ imaginitive and playful set design works beautifully, and the addition of the videography from J. Mark Pim was also a nice addition which added to the ‘Spelling Bee experience’ that the production brings alive.
The Drayton Arms Theatre is a perfect venue for a show like this, intimate, fringey, fun, and it must be said: hot. My hat goes off to the cast who despite the blistering heat and humidity of the venue on Press Night, didn’t let it affect them in the slightest. We were with you all the way, sweat patches and all. Was it worth it though? You bet.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at The Drayton Arms Theatre to the 16th June, with tickets available online here.
(Thomas was provided a press ticket to review the show.)
Thomas Joy is a theatre-lover and musician. Follow him on now Twitter: