In a bleak basement somewhere in the United States, a group of child contestants gathers for that most American of competitive activities -- the Spelling Bee. Lined up and ready for some challenging words, the adolescents all have their own problems, but are all focussed on the prize, a place in the national competition in Washington DC. As the evening wears on the contestants are revealed as vulnerable young people each with a different family complication, but each sadly yearning for success.
This is the moment captured by The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a way out modernistic musical made for anyone tired of the classics that has plenty of laughs once you know what you're in for -- a strange set, stranger characters, a very unpredictable outcome, and not least, modern music, some lovely melody among it.
The show is interactive. Last night’s audience at Magdalene College auditorium became part of the action. Bee organiser Rona Lisa Peretti played with benign conviction by Mariam Abdel-Razek, welcomed us to the contest. Her favourite phrase,’My very favourite part of the Bee' (later revealed to be most parts) soon led her into song. Her voice matched her role perfectly, a lyrical soprano equal to some of the demanding score. Her transition from teacherly welcome to delightful virtuoso eased a possibly puzzled audience into the show.
Some of them had already landed starring parts in it.
Emerged from an American theatre/writing group, The Farm, in the early years of the century. It still preserves some of its improvisations -- certain audience members elected to take the place of ‘missing contestants’. Bravely they spelled when their fictional name was called and weathered the cheeky lines written to describe them. 'We weren’t there to act,' protested one volunteer after the show when accused of getting a difficult word right, 'We were there to spell.'
And spell was what the children of the fictional show had to do at a dizzying level. Allowed only the meaning of the word given and its context (much scope for hilarious definitions here) they were set in motion by Vice Principal Douglas Panch played with thinly veiled composure by Helena Fox. His absence of five years from the school ’with health issues’ was explained when the carapace of control cracked mid-contest and the VP burst out into a terrifying tantrum. Fully recovered in seconds, he continued his relentless task of producing the words for the children to attempt. Michelle Spielberg made up the staff team with a terrific performance as Michael M Mahoney, a work experience placement only there to satisfy his parole board’s requirement. Sprawled man-spread-style evincing complete contempt for the entire proceedings, Michael was back-up to escort-failed contestants off the stage.
An early casualty was Chip Tolentino. Keen as mustard to win, his eye caught sight of his rival’s sister in the audience. So suddenly stimulated by the encounter he stumbled over his word, was got out and then began a delightfully musical aria devoted to the sudden erection that caught him off guard. William Debram sang this unusual theme wonderfully, often with only base support from the very talented band at the back of the auditorium. Struggling, he was bounced out of the competition. Leaf Coneybear (Rachel Tils) a superb singer and touching player, gave her weird name convincing context. Despite being included only by chance, she was far brighter (smarter) than she thought -- one of the few contestants to find any real redemption in the strange competition. Susi Mauer’s Mercy Park, played with ferocious commitment as a manic fanatic eventually abandoned her mission to win when Jesus appeared from nowhere and reassured her he loved her anyway adding, 'This kind of thing doesn’t really interest me at all.' The revelation ended Mercy’s roll of luck but she cared as little as Jesus when it did.
The bizarrely named Logainne Schwartzandgrubennière emerged as a painfully confused youngster ‘with two dads’ – hence the amalgamated name (‘They couldn’t agree on what to call me') who bicker over her achievements with doubled testosterone filled ambition and have to retire for ‘dad time’ to fight it out as the child agonizes over her failures. Her mother ‘BM’ for 'birth mother’ lives ‘in a trailer park’ and mustn’t be mentioned. Phoebe Schenk gives the role plenty of anguished feeling and her numbers masses of energy. Jamie Williams playing the desperately lonely and neglected Olive Ostrovsky stays the course to the final. With a beautiful voice, she has the best of the tunes in the show and faces her spell-off with Basil Mustafa’s William Barfee, a character so complex and shot through with neuroses he would defeat a lesser actor. He gets the laughs and he even attracts some sympathy but he is a worthy winner of what is a catastrophe of an educational exercise.
It all makes for a way out modern musical with zany merit and some lovely moments.