The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by Guildford School of Acting 3rd year students at Ivy Arts Centre, Guildford.
Rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
A loud, crazy American musical not over-blessed with great songs, big laughs or moving moments was given such a full-frontal assault by these richly talented final-year GSA students that the audience simply had to come out with smiles on their faces.
Somehow this show, described by one British critic as “a flimsy, vacuous diversion”, picked up two Tony awards in 2005 on Broadway but London didn’t really buy it at the Donmar in 2011, and it was hard to discern whether Rachel Sheinkin’s book and William Finn’s music and lyrics were celebrating or satirising the quaint all-American institution of spelling-bee contests for kids.
Was it saying that sad youngsters pore every night over weird dictionary words because their parents don’t give them enough of their time for ‘normal’ family pursuits? Or were the six quirky, somewhat unreal adolescents we saw competing with four audience volunteers near-genius-level freaks we should admire for cultivating such formidable memories?
Act I was much enlivened by the volunteers (different at each performance) being put down by the quick-witted improvisations (even Donald Trump got a mention) from the show’s presenter Rona Peretti, herself a past Putnam County winner (for getting the vowel-free ‘syzygy’ right in the final, as she kept reminding us).
This was another polished performance from Megan Bancroft who shone in Anyone Can Whistle last year and is one to watch out for.
So too is Tiffany Lear, who had a gift of a part as the objectionable know-it-all winner Wilma Barfee and made the most of every second, showing superb attack and expression. Her gimmick was spelling the word first with her feet to get a mind-picture of it before barking it out.
Fellow finalist Olive (Eve Norris, excellent) is mixed-up because, with mum on an ashram in India and dad always working too late to have time for her, she feels unloved. The most moving musical moment came with ‘The I Love You Song’ when Olive imagined her parents (Lauren Byrne and Taite-Elliot Drew, both in great voice) were there to support her.
The smug quiz pronouncer with a skeleton in the cupboard whose job entails giving definitions of the bizarre words saw Adam Pettit over-play to perfection as an adult who has barely managed to escape childhood himself.
When one of the volunteers on the day I went (a first-year at GSA) actually got a difficult word right when he wasn’t supposed to, Pettit’s improvised exasperation at having to come up with one that definitely floored him (since all four ‘guests’ have to be out by the interval) was a joy to watch.
Jack Keane, as losing contestant Chip, literally had a ball in his big number when putting his exit down to an “unfortunate protuberance that seems to have its own exuberance”, while the other three contestants also had their back-stories well presented by Nuwan Perera, Sophie Hannah Reader and Alice Gruden.
Jack Watson and Stephen Patrick, as the pushy gay parents of the confused Logainne (Reader), were lovely in cameo roles and Thomas Duern, as sinister Mitch whose ‘forced community service’ was to comfort the losers, looked as dodgy as he undoubtedly was.
Lewis McBean, Courtney Bowman, Millie Thompson and Jessica Paul had only minor parts, but it was hard to take your eyes off them.
Director Jemma Gross never let the furious pace drop but was imaginative set designer PJ McEvoy having a laugh, in a show about spelling, when leaving the apostrophe out of the ‘Lets Go Bees’ banner, hoping boring pedants like me would comment? If so, he wins the bet!
The music for the 25 songs is in the hands of just two, musical director Jordan Li-Smith on piano and Elaine Booth (reed/woodwind), but two were quite sufficient for the small Ivy Studio 2. If anything, a little less cast volume would not have gone amiss.