Six trembling pre-teens take the stage for the competition they have prepared for their whole lives.
It’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and the stakes (and nerves) are high for these academically inclined youngsters. The UNSW Theatre Society’s 2019 major production, conceived by Rebecca Feldman, written by Rachel Sheinkin with music and lyrics by William Finn, is all about the thrilling highs and the devastating lows of a Middle School Spelling Bee. The resulting production is a hilarious and very fun night out that is not to be missed.
First time director Jordan Barnes has gathered a very talented ensemble to make up the schoolkids who are in contention to win the very competitive spelling bee, and the adults who run it. Each student has a unique and quirky personality, brought to life by a cast that are both musically talented and very, very funny. Comic highlights include Lise Gluckman as the outspoken, politically savvy, lisp-ridden Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (try spelling that!), Dave Collins as the competitive and unfriendly William Barfée, and Jack Westbury as Leaf Coneybear, the ditsy third-runner-up (who only got in to the Putnam County Bee because 1st and 2nd place at qualifiers were unavailable). Sam Walsh and Lily Stokes have a great rapport as the Spelling Bee moderators and Isabella Olsson is good, if underused, as the surly ex-con volunteering at the Spelling Bee for community service.
The designers of Spelling Bee, overseen by Lead Designer Isobel Sanby, have done an excellent job in conjuring up the very specific atmosphere of a high school gym. Brenda Lam and Louisa Fitzgerald’s costumes work to highlight the distinct personalities of each of the students. Jacqui Orme’s lighting design effectively showcases the many jumps between the Spelling Bee, the student’s memories, and musical breaks.
The music, performed by Edvin Miler, Thomas McCorguodale, Jeremy Kindl, Jacob Lawler, Amy Chang and Nick Cranch, was fun and very catchy, with particularly witty lyrics by Rachel Sheinkin. Highlights include Paul Escorrido’s delightfully silly performance of My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament), Sophie Tzioumis’ rendition of I Speak Six Languages, complete with an elaborate and impressive dance routine (choreographed by Artemis Alfonzetti), and the whole ensemble’s performance of Pandemonium, one of the show’s biggest and best numbers. Near the end of the show, the story took a surprising but welcome turn into more serious territory, with Izzy Hanly’s moving rendition of The I Love You Song, a tribute to Olive’s love for her absent parents (played by Dave Collins and a wonderful Lily Stokes).
One of the most enjoyable parts of the show was the audience interaction, with the Spelling Bee moderator (Stokes) picking four audience members to participate in the actual Spelling Bee. These volunteers sat with the rest of the students, and were included in songs, spelling and dancing before gradually getting ‘eliminated’. Having new ‘characters’ every night provides perfect breeding ground for improvised comedy, which the cast had a lot of fun playing with, and the audience loved.
Another reason this musical lends itself so well to improvised comedy is the essentially performative nature of the Bee, with the ‘audience’ being supposedly filled with the children’s parents and families. This meant that there is a fun level of improvised engagement with the audience, with many of the students waving and talking to their parents in the crowd.
The NUTS production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is one of the best student theatre productions I’ve ever seen. By picking a lesser-known musical, Jordan Barnes delivers a fresh and fun production that’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser.