I confess to being one of those people who can get a bit obsessive about spelling, but I definitely don’t come up to the standard of the kids who take part in spelling bees in the US every year. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical about this very concept, with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. It originally debuted on Broadway in 2005.
The Drayton Arms Theatre is a small space above the pub of the same name, but the producers have transformed it into a technicolour school hall (you can see the basketball hoop in the top right corner) with the cast donning cartoonish costumes. We have presenter Rona Lisa Peretti (Elizabeth Chadwick), a former Spelling Bee champion herself, accompanied by official word pronouncer Douglas Panch (Michael Watson-Grey) and the glum ‘comfort counsellor’ Mitch Mahoney (Inti Conde). Then, of course, there are the contestants, all from very different backgrounds and with their own hopes and dreams, which we get to see and understand during the course of the show.
As the competitors spell their way to a hopeful victory, we get to see what makes them tick. Tightly-wound Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Lottie Johnson) wants to please her two dads, while shy Olive Ostrovsky’s (Thea J. Wolfe) parents haven’t turned up at all. William Barfée (T.J. Lloyd), who had to drop out of last year’s competition because he ate a brownie containing the nuts he is allergic to, has a ‘magic foot’ he uses to spell out the word on the ground. Eccentric Leaf Coneybear (Danny Whelan) wants to prove he isn’t the idiot in the family, Chip Tolentino (Aaron Jenson) is distracted by Leaf’s sister, while child prodigy Marcy Park (Jeannie May) is tempted to lose so that she won’t have to be perfect any more. There are also several audience members involved (not me, thankfully) who are invited to compete and have a go at spelling increasingly obscure words.
The songs are great fun and often very witty, and many have a touch of sadness, as when Olive sings about the dictionary being her only friend. The wry commentaries and random word definitions were hilarious, and despite the small performance space, the cast really got stuck into the big numbers.
I really got into this show: it was great fun, performed with energy by the talented and enthusiastic cast.