The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Oct 21 2014 | By More

★★★☆☆     Hilarity unfettered

Assembly Roxy Mon 13 – Fri 17 October 2014
Review by Thom Dibdin

There is plenty of talent on stage in the EUTC’s vibrant, crowd-pleasing production of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is upstairs at the Roxy to Friday evening.

Poster image for the EUTC production.

Poster image for the EUTC production.

Pleasingly enough, the most exciting elements of Becca Simmonds and Jimi Mitchell’s production are the ones over which they have had the most control – the choreography and the blocking.

As directors, they have done much to take what can be a rather static show and give it a strong dynamic as they bring out its full comedic potential.

Set, as you would reasonably expect, in Putnam County during the annual spelling bee, the show focuses on the hopes and inner thoughts of six youngsters taking part.

The bee is overseen by Rona Perretti – herself a former Spelling Bee champion who won, as she daydreams regularly, by spelling the word “syzygy” at the third bee. Roz Ford gives Rona a feisty, somewhat crazed demeanour, setting the tone for the whole production.

She is aided by the sad figure of Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who has overcome his previous difficulties and is in a “much better place” as he takes the chair as the official word pronouncer.

Panch is a key role, as he has to deal with the random quartet of patsies drawn from the audience who join the six spellers in the bee. Henry Conklin does a superb job, hinting at past sordid misdemeanours while smoothly ad-libbing in order to ensure that the destinies of the four in the bee coincide with the structure of the show.

Shadowy role

As each contestant is eliminated they get a hug and some juice from Mitch Mahoney – who is performing the role of comfort councillor as part of his community service. It is a shadowy role, but Jay Cameron gives it some depth and, when called on to sing, brings on a big, substantial vocal presence.

The half dozen slightly-crazed American misfits are well cast. The standout performer is Scott Meenan as Leaf Coneybear, who is only in the final by default and whose ability to spell correctly comes to him in trance.

Meenan’s real ability, however, is in his doubling as one of the fathers of fellow contestant, Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre. Although he changes character on stage, you would be forgiven for thinking he was two different actors.

Logaine, herself, is a key role and Kate Maria Pasola ensures that she has real sense of the driven about her – with both her dads (Jay Cameron plays the second) fighting and bitching over her tutorship for the bee.

The show is full of comedy, from previous winner Chip Tolentino (Nitai Levi) who departs the bee first when he is embarrassed by an unfortunate erection when called up to spell, to Marcy Park (Sarah Couper) who also departs early when she realises – in a vision of Christ – that it is alright to fail, and deliberately mis-spells a word.

Arguably the role with the most comic potential is William Barfee. With numerous personal health problems, he has a unique method of spelling out a word with his foot, before saying it out loud. Campbell Keith is strong enough here, but pushes the comedy too hard, somewhat to the detriment of the resulting humour. It is a good performance, but there is more subtlety available than he utilises.

Part of Keith’s difficulty is that, like all the performers, he struggles with the sound levels. The performers are not miked-up – although there are microphones on stage for the spellers and the adjudicators. In the intimate stage upstairs in the Roxy this should present no problem, but unfortunately although the band – tucked away in the wings – deliver clear support, they are also somewhat overpowering.

where they really let rip

If Simmonds and Mitchell have brought out the comedy from their performers, and the choreography during the fantasy and dream sequences is where they really let rip, they have paid slightly less attention to the underlying humanity of the show.

The humanity is there. Most notably in the nervous self-motivating Olive Ostrovsky who is excellently observed by Rachael Anderson as she laments the lack of attention she gets at home from her always-busy dad and self-obsessed mother.

The show has another potential element to it as well. The whole concept of competitive spelling is decidedly exploitative, in that rather nasty way in which children become an outlet for their parents own competitive edge. And this more nuanced idea, while glanced upon, has become rather lost in amidst all the glee.

That said, this is a thoroughly entertaining production which sends up an American institution with all the disrespect it deserves.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight-through
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU
Mon 13 –  Fri 17 October 2014
Daily, not Wed, 7.30pm.

Click here to purchase the soundtrack and music from Æ’s Amazon page


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.