Wednesday, 18 January 2006

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, MTC, Jan 18, 2006

 The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee 
Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Jan 18 until February 25, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Jan 18, 2006

As witnessed in the documentary, Spellbound, Americans take their spelling bees deadly seriously. Australian children would never face words such as “omphaloskepsis” or “cleistogamy”. Try finding those in your spell checker.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an uproariously silly and demented musical set at an annual county spelling competition. Six rather peculiar teenagers compete for a position at the national spelling bee.  

You might think there is nothing dramatic about a spelling competition but the stakes are high, emotions run out of control and the rules are ruthless. You would think their young lives depended on winning.

Of course, this very intensity is what makes it so hilarious to we non-believers. Every contestant is eccentric, ambitious, smart and a candidate for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

William Finn’s songs are diverse in style and lyrics are clever. The title song has the feel of a Broadway musical and Life is Pandemonium is a punchy chorus number. Bert Labonte’s funky voice makes The Prayer of the Comfort Counsellor a raunchy highlight.

The band, under the musical direction of Ian McDonald, plays impeccably.

Rachel Sheinkin’s dialogue is witty and in the style of a sit-com. Her best lines are delivered with relish by Tyler Coppin, as the temperamental word pronouncer and Vice-Principal, Douglas Panch.

Marina Prior proves she can play comedy as the prissy ex-champion speller, Rona Lisa Peretti.

The solo songs by each child demonstrate their insecurities, despair and ambition. It is this inner life that provides an emotional layer to the show.
We watch some of them overcome appalling parental pressure. Christen O’Leary is charming as Logaine Schwarzandgrubeniere, the lisping, left wing daughter of two gay dads. Natalie Mendoza as the multi-lingual smarty-pants, Marcy Park, delights us when she purposely misspells a word in order to escape the pressure of her perfectionism.

 David Campbell is in fine voice as Chip Tolentino,an ex-champ distracted, while spelling, by his hormones. Tim Wright is a joy to watch as weird little Leaf Coneybear.

Magda Szubanski had a field day playing the arrogant and overweight William Barfee with his nasal problems and no friends.
Don't panic, but they do invite four audience members on stage as spellers. They even got some of the toughest words right.

The show has the tension of a sporting event. Who will survive to spell another day. The Spelling Bee utterly enjoyable and completely goofy romp.

By Kate Herbert 

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