Photos – Jon Green
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is based on a play developed by an American theatre collective called The Farm. The phenomena of the American Spelling Bee first came to wide attention in Australian with the runaway success of an unlikely film documentary which ran and ran at indie cinemas here in 2002.
The Bee is the setting for this pacy and funny musical. To quote from the program notes, these nerdy but brilliant children “in the throes of puberty, grappling with their intellect and the idea that there might be something more important than smashing their competitors. Humanity, compassion and humility are the lessons of the day.”
This was a terrific production all round if somewhat lighter than the introduction suggests. Nevertheless there were some highly poignant moments to counterpoint the humour.
The scene is set immaculately in the gymnasium as the M.C. Rona Lisa Perretti, played with relish by Lisa Hanly, gushes over the event, the competitors and basks in her own success as a former champion speller made good, and (surprise, surprise!) a brilliant realtor. Introducing the flawed and vulnerable Vice-Principal Panch (a lovely deadpan performance by David Bulters) as the announcer and judge.
The group of dysfunctional prodigies take to the stage and work their way through a gruelling process, whereby each contestant is asked to spell a word, and on request the judge will give a definition of the word and place it in an often hilarious and wildly inappropriate sentence. These frequently had the audience in stitches. Some very witty writing here!
The 18 strong cast comprised an excellent chorus; singing and dancing with verve. The leads emerged as wonderfully eccentric characters. Andrew Cook, as the marvellously sleazy Mitch Mahoney, a malevolent prisoner on day-release whose appointed task was to shepherd off the losers.
Then there were the contestant who, against all odds, managed to convincingly portray adolescents. Ben Adams turned in a terrific display of agile footwork as the adenoidally-challenged William Barfee, who spelled using his “magic foot”. Kazim Kane as the desperately insecure Leaf Coneybear, product of alternative home-schooling in a hippie family. His dysfunctional mannerisms and stage business were riveting. Hollie James, (Logaine Schwartz and Grubenierre) parented by a pair of competitive gay fathers. Melissa Nadin as sad Olive Ostrovsky whose parents are continually absent; mother in an ashram and father always at work. Sian Johnson as the prodigy Marcy Park who speaks six languages but socially fits in nowhere. Finally Mark Strom as Chip Tolentino, a brash boy scout, whose adolescent lust for Marigold Coneybear, (Leaf’s sister in the audience,) leads to his early disqualification. Cue a memorable song, rhyming the words “erection, rejection and complexion” as he is demoted to selling refreshments to the audience!
These characters sound like somewhat overdrawn caricatures, and to a certain extent they were but the actors handled their individual roles with flair and polish. That the show was primarily an entertainment took nothing away from the professional presentation of these third year Musical Theatre students. Their singing, dancing and characterisation was a first class piece of ensemble work.
My only criticism was the musical score. Certainly not the orchestra, who were right on the mark, but the underlying feeling that all contemporary musicals are beginning to sound the same. Song after song. Certainly the lyrics were appropriate as background explanations for the individual characters but the sound is getting to be very familiar.
That is certainly why “Magic Foot” a cleverly choreographed Broadway-style ensemble piece with the chorus waving multi-coloured ballet shoes and contorting themselves into brilliant formations was such an outstanding change of pace.
The WAAPA Musical Theatre program enjoys a formidable national and indeed now international, reputation and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is again a ringing endorsement of this regard.
WAAPA Musical Theatre tickets are notoriously hard to procure, the theatre is small and the demand high, nevertheless here are the booking details. Best of luck!
WA Academy of Performing Arts presents
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Venue: The Geoff Gibbs Theatre
Dates: Saturday 19, Monday 21, Tuesday 22, Wednesday 23,Thursday 24, Friday 25 Saturday 26 March
Matinee: Saturday 26 March 2.00pm
Tickets: $43.00 – $37.00
Bookings: 08 9370 6895