Drayton Arms Theatre, London – until 16 June 2018
Fun fact: the final of the US National Spelling Bee in Maryland took place recently. The 14-year-old winner, Karthik Nemmani, triumphed by correctly spelling “koinonia” – which means Christian fellowship or communion – after his opponent, aged 12, stumbled on her own word, “Bewusstseinslage” (a state of consciousness or a feeling devoid of sensory components). Afterwards, reports the Guardian, the generous champion took no pleasure in beating his rival, saying: “We weren’t against each other. We were against the dictionary.”
There’s little sign of such magnanimity at the start of MKEC Productions’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. We arrive to find the contestants and organisers milling about the theatre, chatting with the audience and bickering amongst themselves before the show begins and battle commences. Somehow I’d never seen William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony Award-winning musical before – which is ironic considering I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks a show about spelling actually does sound like fun – but I’m now officially a convert.
What starts as a hilariously silly comedy about six misfits who love to spell unexpectedly turns into an emotional rollercoaster as we get to know the contestants and understand the backstories that have brought them to the bee. Unlike most rollercoasters, however, this is one I’d happily get back on and do it all over again. And then again after that.
This is partly because bits of the show have an improvised feel – specifically those involving members of the audience (nothing too scary and all voluntary, although I’m still glad it wasn’t me up there) and a few pointed one-liners referencing current events – and it would be fascinating to see what goes differently on a second viewing. But it’s mostly because the story, characters and music are all genuinely delightful, despite also being “the slightest bit bizarre” in their own special ways.
There’s last year’s winner Chip Tolentino (Aaron Jenson), who’s doing fine until he spots a pretty girl in the front row and all the blood rushes from his brain to – well, somewhere else. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Lottie Johnson) is desperate to make her two dads proud, while Marcy Park (Jeannie May) knows that whatever she achieves it’ll never be enough for her parents. William Barfee – excuse me, Barfée (TJ Lloyd) – has a magic foot that helps him spell (yes, really), and Leaf Coneybear (Danny Whelan) is beginning to realise that he might actually be quite smart after all, despite what his family keep telling him. And finally there’s Olive Ostrovsky (Thea Jo Wolfe), who before the show even started, slipped a piece of paper on to the empty seat beside me and whispered, “It’s for my dad.” The obvious and tragic fact that the seat was guaranteed to remain empty made Olive my immediate and enduring favourite.
Trying to keep some kind of order amidst all this pandemonium are former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Elizabeth Chadwick), vice principal Douglas Panch (Michael Watson-Gray), and bizarrely, Mitch Mahoney (Inti Conde), who’s doing his community service consoling defeated spellers. As you do.
Because there can be only one winner at the spelling bee. As we get to know more about the contestants and what drives them, it becomes obvious this is much more than just a game to our six young spellers, and the final round is surprisingly tense as we wait to see who’ll crack first under the pressure. But although each elimination is a sad moment, the show ends on an upbeat note with the realisation that winning isn’t necessarily everything. Sure it’s a cliché, but when you’re having this much fun, who cares?
A seemingly casual joke about the show’s brief rehearsal time highlights what a polished production this is in spite of that. A brilliant cast excel both individually and as an ensemble, hitting all the right comic notes but also giving emotional depth to characters who at first glance appear to be no more than stereotypes. Director and choreographer Adam Haigh makes full and effective use of the intimate space, setting the tone of the production with the pre-show activities to ensure the audience – who are cast early on as proud parents watching the bee – always feel involved and connected to what’s going on.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is brilliantly bonkers, and proves what I knew all along – that spelling really is fun. But the show also champions those who dare to be different, and reminds us that sometimes it really is the taking part that counts. This little gem of a production is a feel-good treat and guaranteed to put a smile on your face; don’t miss it.