The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee

Aug 26 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   Satisfyingly goofy

RSE Theatre (Venue 431): Thurs 11 – Sun 28 Aug 2022
Review by Greg Holstead

In The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee, at the RSE Theatre for the final two weeks of the Fringe, Happy Sad Productions attempt to make sense of this quirky musical based on that particularly American Institution – the spelling bee.

With a group of young adults playing pre-teens, director Amber Docherty keeps her foot firmly on the gas pedal to bring visceral and goofy energy to the production. She pushes her nine-strong brood to the edge of the nest, and beyond. Thankfully, they all fly.

The six finalists in The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee. Pic: Becca Wicksted

This is the Tony award-winning musical which ran on Broadway in 2005. It follows the stories of six finalists at a local spelling bee. Along the way we it explores the back stories of each of the young characters and their peculiar spelling methods; one uses a hand puppet, another spells words on her arm – and then there’s the ‘magic foot’…

The audience are picked out or picked on, told to leave particular seats clear, for late Bee family members and, for three ‘lucky’ individuals, actually brought to the stage to participate in the spelling contest.

this Bee fairly flies along

There is no denying that the first half of this show in particular, in which the audience members are involved, is quirky, fast-paced and laugh-out-loud hilarious, as each character and audience participant are asked to come to the spotlight to spell words. Accompanied by some funny songs and memorable characters, this bee fairly flies along.

The cast is split on stage, with the six finalists on one side and the officials on the other.

On the finalists side there is competition newcomer Olive Ostrovsky (Kayleigh Macdonald) with last years’ magic-footed finalist William Barfee (Aaron Clason), sour-pussed, athletic all-rounder Marcy Park (Heather Richardson) and politics fan Logainne Schartz (Orla Bayne).

Not to forget loveable clothes re-cycler Leaf Coneybear (Joe Gill) and last year’s winner, the tightly uniformed scout-leader and somewhat premature Chip Tolentino (Rory Bayliss-Chalmers).

Rory Bayliss-Chalmers. Pic: Becca Wicksted

On the other side of the stage are the honey-voiced Kathleen Davie as presenter and former champion, Rona Peretti, and Mark Buckingham as lactose intolerant, dry witted Vice-Principal Doug Panch.

Keeping order over proceedings while doing his community service at the Bee is the often hilarious and menacing leather-clad ex-con Mitch Mahoney (Andrew Lodge). This character is so similar to the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors that you have to remind yourself you are at the Bee, not on Skid row.

Musical Director Filip Holacky rattles along on the piano to the side of the stage. There is a great accompanist interaction here with all the singers which allows for comedic pauses, laughter breaks and also breathing by the actors. This natural approach is great to see (and hear) and adds a lot to this production.

jam packed

The musical is jam packed with enjoyable songs, including My friend the Dictionary, sung beautifully by Kayleigh Macdonald; Aaron Clason’s impressive Barfee number: Magic Foot, complete with wonderfully choreography; and Chip’s memorable My Unfortunate Erection, which Rory Bayliss-Chalmers sings with real gusto to kick off the second half.

Perhaps the number that sums up this show best, however, is Life is Pandemonium. There is certainly plenty of that here!

Some may say this as a pointless and vacuous piece of Americana. But, with a well-rehearsed and talented cast, wonderfully handled with fast-paced direction by Docherty and some excellent choreography from Roza Stephenson to add to Holacky’s live piano, there is much to be happy about.

In fact, I enjoyed this show so much that I saw the first half twice – and I can’t wait to see what honey this hive produces next time.

Running time: One hour and 55 minutes (including one interval)
RSE Theatre (Wolfson Theatre) 22-26 George Street, EH2 2PQ (Venue 431)
Thursday 11 – Sunday 28 August 2022
Daily: 22:00
Tickets and details: Book here.

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The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee cast. Pic: Becca Wicksted


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