There has been a lot of hype surrounding this production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (the topic is fairly self-evident), both due to being a relatively new Broadway hit, and also thanks to the star-studded cast being brought together in a remount of last year’s successful MTC production. This show is extremely entertaining and thus lives up to expectations on that level, although on another it was somewhat predictably disappointing.
At the risk of succumbing to some kind of intercultural snobbery, I confess that it’s been quite some time since I’ve been genuinely impressed by an imported “successful new American play/musical”. Although usually rather entertaining, well-crafted and clever, I rarely find myself watching something innovative or even just memorably good coming out of Broadway of late. Spelling Bee is, in some regards, no exception. The topic seems cribbed from the popular 2002 documentary Spellbound, the characters are all relatively familiar, and for a musical it contains no noteworthy songs you’re likely to be humming on the way back to the car, let alone the next day. That being said, this otherwise unremarkable material has a beguiling warmth and is replete with very funny gags and an infectious humour. The show is undoubtedly elevated further by the expert direction of Simon Phillips and his sensational cast.
There has been a fair degree of talk that the incomparable Magda Szubanski as the Eric Cartman-esque William Barfee steals the show, and although not wanting to take anything away from her brilliant performance, I think that the accolade does actually take something away from the other equally-talented actors, as it is very much an ensemble cast. One couldn’t help but feel that Szubanski’s contribution has been somewhat over-anticipated by her legion of Kath and Kim fans, as the spontaneous applause over her entrance may attest. Quite aside from all this, however, Szubanski herself deserves nothing but praise, making her grotesque schoolboy role actually quite textured and sympathetic, without resorting to mugging or buffoonery that would seem an easy temptation. To her considerable credit she does not hog the limelight or attempt to dominate the stage with her quirky character.
Another stunning performance that goes for genuine pathos rather than just easy laughs is Lisa McCune, unfairly regarded by some as just a telly actor but rather is one of our most underrated “star-power” performers in stage musicals, as she never disappoints. Demonstrating her versatility yet again, if one compares her utterly different roles in Cabaret (raw and unsettling) and Urinetown (hilariously Monroesque), McCune’s portrayal of shy, lonely Olive Ostrovsky is touching and sweet.
Christen O’Leary is perfect as the nervous, politically aware Logainne Schwarzandgrubeniere, eager not to disappoint her two over-coaching “stage mother” gay fathers, from whom her portmanteau surname is derived. These parts, swishily played by Tim Wright and Bert Labonte, are doubled with the larger roles of contestant Leaf Coneybear and “Comfort Counselor”/parolee Mitch Mahoney respectively. Mahoney in particular gets to flex his comedic muscles after his recent suave role in Pippin. Josie Lane is superb as Marcy Park, the caricatured apogee of Asian overachievers, portraying the character’s tightly-coiled personality to hilarious effect with her staccato delivery and unexpected vulnerability. Jamie McGregor has perhaps the least showy role as Chip Tolentino, the first child to be eliminated, however he more than makes up for this with a later cameo as a character so totally unexpected that I wouldn’t dare spoil it for anyone. The officious, faintly sadistic Vice Principal Douglas Panch is played by the talented Tyler Coppin, perhaps not intrinsically the funniest character in the show but is gifted with by far the best lines.
One of the script’s strengths is its use of outrageous, semi-absurdist examples of “usage”, as the contestants are permitted to ask for both a definition of their assigned word as well as to hear it placed in the context of a sentence. As with McGregor’s aforementioned cameo, it would be truly unkind to give away any of these side-splitting jokes. Suffice it to say that they each brought the house down, in no small part due to Coppin’s expertly snide deadpan. Perhaps the most fun of this great ensemble is Marina Prior, deliciously cast against type as the vampy blonde sexbomb Rona Lisa Peretti, former champ now moderator/host of the Bee, who is equal parts sultry and apple-pie. Although hardly subtle, Prior’s indelible performance creates a perfectly-pitched central figure (although not main character per se), embodying that genuinely over-the-top Americana that this musical showcases.
Although “audience participation” is nothing new, one delightful and slightly unusual twist in Spelling Bee is that it is both extensive and voluntary. Half an hour before the show, 3 or 4 patrons in the foyer are invited to play other schoolchildren and actually participate in the onstage spelling bee. The fact that these audience members, interspersed with the cast, are actually attempting to spell increasingly unlikely words correctly makes the length of their individual participation in the story somewhat unpredictable. As a result, Spellng Bee has a somewhat improvised edge to it, as indeed this musical was developed from improv comedy group The Farm’s play C-R-E-P-E-S-C-U-L-E.
Although not groundbreaking theatre, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an excellent production of a howlingly funny musical, and a sure thing for a bushel of B-E-L-L-Y L-A-U-G-H-S.
STC presents an MTC production
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin | Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Sydney Theatre | 22 Hickson Road Walsh Bay
14 June – 14 July 2007**
Mondays 6:30pm, Tuesdays – Saturdays 8pm
Wednesday @ 1pm (except 20 June at 12:15pm), Saturday @ 2pm
Mon-Fri $75/$68 concession | Mon-Fri matinee $69/$59 concession | Sat evening $78
(02) 9250 1777
ADDITIONAL SHOWS HAVE BEEN ADDED
Wednesday 18 July at 1pm (matinee)
Wednesday 18 July at 8pm
Thursday 19 July at 8pm
Friday 20 July at 8pm
Saturday 21 July at 2pm (matinee)
Saturday 21 July at 8pm (closing night)