The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee centres on several eccentric and distinct prepubescents, participating in a spelling bee that is fun but fiercely competitive, and the imperfect adults or parents who facilitate (or not) the contest and their success. This production could not be more brilliantly cast. Every character is a hit,
The ensemble as a whole carries explosive energy and momentum, aided by Alick Draper’s direction, and Grace Stevenson dynamic choreography. Even colder characters become animated as the students have a collective song and dance to “goodbye” the losers or rage about how the competition is rigged. It is huge fun for the audience because we can tell how much fun the performers are having. Their commitment is breathtaking on one hand and comical on the other, as they are intertwined and juxtaposed with audience members cast as competitors.
This show is an absolute treat for an audience member, well, certainly if you're as enthusiastic as I am. We feel connected and integrated, whether it be through close proximity in an intimate theatre, direct eye contact, or literally getting to take the stage as a competitor (don’t worry, there are no surprise confrontations). The rest of the audience are the spelling bee spectators and I was lucky enough to be cast as a student’s family member in the audience with hilarious consequences.
Alick Draper’s staging and set design made the seating arrangement work as best as possible. The whole festival has the Gryphon seating split into two very separate blocks at right angles, almost resembling the tiered seating of the spelling bee competitors. My block feels like the ‘side on’ one. When a character is asked to “face the audience”, they understandably look toward the primary seating block, where the signage, competitors’ seating and mike-stand is mostly angled. Nevertheless the ‘side’ gets to be close to the expressive characters, and has the perfect angle for watching the comedic host panel, a warmly patronising MC, played by Ellie Stewart, and cold, cranky adjudicator, captured perfectly by Mike Bryant. The panel inject hilarious commentary, including some improvised dialogue.
The colourful set, costumes and number tags match the vibrant adolescent characters in their youthful energy. The adults on the panel are dressed more dull, especially the adjudicator (Bryant) who appears to detest being there as much as the bee suited ex-convict on community service (Siobhan Raisbeck). Tight lighting changes, designed and operated by Aaron Blackledge, swiftly represent flashbacks or the internal world of characters during solos or a mild sexual fantasy.
It is no wonder the script book won a Tony award. The comedy is charming and potent. The kids have a fascinating mix between naive and developing understandings, including some ‘adult’ themes and jokes. Some of the adolescents come across younger which makes mature content jar a bit, but not necessarily in a bad way, particularly because complex characters is realistic and engaging. For a quaint sounding county spelling bee, the musical is anchored in a modern political setting. This is signaled notably through the very young but politically aware Logainne (delightfully portrayed by Ruby Kemp) who is an ambitious activist and, with two overbearing Dads. The musical’s room for improvisation creates a platform for even more relevant and hilarious political commentary and pop culture references.
So much hilarious content, character and “heart” is packed into ninety minutes that I want to see this show again and again. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is showing three more times at the Gryphon Theatre until Saturday 9th, and it will have you in stitches.