Drayton Arms Theatre, London – until 16 June 2018
Guest reviewer: Kirsty Herrington
On paper, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee feels as though it shouldn’t work. After all, what could be entertaining about a spelling contest? This latest production of the hit musical at the Drayton Arms Theatre, however, proves that it works very well indeed.
With music and lyrics by William Finn and the book by Rachel Sheinkin, the musical tells the story of an annual Spelling Bee contest in the US. From the moment the audience steps inside the theatre they are transported into an American high school gymnasium, where Spelling Bee moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (Elizabeth Chadwick) and this year’s contestants are on hand to welcome them. The show kicks off with Perretti, a former champion herself, reminiscing about her own win before the six new contestants are introduced.
There’s the athletic and hormonal Chip Tolentino (Aaron Jenson), the returning champion; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Lottie Johnson), a politically active child who’s eager to make her two dads proud; and Leaf Coneybear (Danny Whelan), an eccentric cape-wearing boy who’s battling against his bullying family. William Barfee (that’s Bar-Fay, not Bar-Fee), played by TJ Lloyd, is a somewhat obnoxious boy with a nasal problem (which thankfully isn’t dwelled upon too much) and a “magic foot” technique that the other contestants envy; while the no-nonsense Marcy “I’m not all business” Park (Jeannie May) is an overachiever who speaks six languages, not five thank you very much.
Finally, there’s Olive Ostrovsky (Thea Jo Wolfe), a shy child who finds solace in a dictionary while her mother is in India on a spiritual retreat. She’s desperately waiting for her father to arrive to the Spelling Bee with the $25 dollar entrance fee and saves a seat in the theatre especially for him.
As the musical progresses the audience soon discovers that there’s more to each of the children’s lives than simply winning the Spelling Bee. The contestants are all battling their own, often familiar and relatable demons – the pressures of overachieving, bullying families, living up to expectations and loneliness, to name but a few.
From start to finish The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee is energetic and fun, with laughs aplenty. There’s silly, childish humour in places (a song laments Chip’s “unfortunate erection” which dashes his hopes of retaining his crown) but it all works, and if anything highlights the awkwardness of adolescence.
Brilliantly directed and choreographed by Adam Haigh, the show makes great use of the theatre’s small but effective space with a vibrant and colourful set designed by Victoria Francis. The cast is so talented and energetic that it’s hard for any one performer to stand out, but the double act of Ms Peretti and Vice Principle Panch, both clinging on to their sanity, does provide an extra dose of comic relief, their timing impeccable. It is however a real ensemble performance, with all of the performers demonstrating great chemistry and pitch-perfect harmonies, even more impressive considering their short rehearsal time. Special commendation must go to them all for giving it 100 per cent in particularly balmy conditions!
The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee is a feel-good musical, fast-paced right from the start and heart-warming in places as it explores friendships and family life. The songs are catchy with most leaving the audience smiling, while in contrast, one of the biggest numbers, The I Love You song featuring Olive and her parents, is enough to tug at the heart strings and bring a tear to the eye.
The Spelling Bee may be a traditionally US phenomenon, but the show definitely works for an audience over the pond. “Now I love what I see,” sings Ms Perretti during “Pandemonium”, one of the shows catchiest tunes, and the audience at the Drayton Arms certainly agreed last night. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is infectious, fun, uplifting and hilarious, and is sure to be a big hit (that’s H-I-T).