The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Review

I wondered if I’d stepped into an alternate universe when confronted by the vibrant Elizabeth Chadwick at the doors of the Drayton Arms Theatre for MKEC’s production of the screwball musical comedy, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

And so it proved – but what a brilliantly funny, rather surreal and trippy experience director Adam Haigh has created. I loved every minute.

William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s multi-award winning Spelling Bee already has a cult following thanks to a clutch of weird and wonderful productions, both in the US and here.

It’s a madcap musical that will have you laughing from before it actually starts to long after it ends.

We all know how eccentric the Americans can be but spelling bees are a long-standing institution.

We Brits actually had spelling bees in 1876 but it is more commonly associated with America where, in 1925, a Kentucky newspaper decided to hold a competition to test the spelling capabilities of the area’s young folk.

Truthfully, it’s a pretty flimsy concept for a theatre production. The very slight story follows, as the title suggests, the zany competitors of the 25th annual bee in Putnam County (not a real place).

They include a bunch of less-than apple pie kids, competitive misfits all, reimagined by Haigh as cartoon characters with rainbow hair and primary colour clothes, plus, wait for it, a few “willing” volunteers from the audience.

I did wonder if it was rigged and they were actually friends of the cast or members of the company but I was assured that they were all pukka.

We learn a little about the contestants, through a series of flashbacks, and they all have a story to tell that is as bizarre and unconventional as the quite extraordinary words they are asked to spell.

Heading the group is a girl whose name is a challenge in itself. Lottie Johnson’s vocally challenged Logainne Schwatrzandgrubenniere is the child of gay fathers and dearly wants to please them.

The exotically named Leaf Coneybear (Danny Whelan channelling full Crispin Glover eccentricity complete with tics and off-the-wall weirdness) comes from a huge family of hippies and is a former champ by default.

He wants to win but finds spelling a mystery until going into a violent trance to blurt them out.

Green-haired scout, Chip Tolentino (Aaron Jenson) is distracted by both Leaf’s beautiful sister, Marigold, who is sitting in the bee audience (that’s us) and an unfortunate erection. Chip’s Lament is hysterical. We feel for him – though not literally, obviously.

Shy girl Olive Ostrovsky (Thea J Wolfe, a picture of charm and innocence) can’t afford the competition entrance fee and has been pretty much abandoned by her parents.

Her mum has gone off to an ashram while dad is too busy at work to give her any attention. Does she win the audience sympathy? Of course she does.

There’s self-assured, cynical, deadpan, Marcy Park (Jeannie May) and, finally, the outsized talent of William BarfĂ©e (TJ Lloyd) who spells out each word with his “magic” foot before giving the answer with a confidence beyond his years.

Some of the words they’re asked to spell sound so ludicrous that you wonder if they’re invented but, no, they’re all there in the dictionary.

Adding to the general mayhem are the quips and comments of dodgy adjudicator Douglas Panch (Michael Watson-Gray) and his sidekick, former champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Chadwick) plus assistance from convict-on-day-release, Mitch (vocal powerhouse Inti Conde).

Haigh forgets the snug performance space to throw in a few big production numbers that includes a high-kicking chorus line. The whole show is a joy from beginning to end.

MKEC Productions, formed by Elizabeth Chadwick and Marc Kelly, has an uncanny knack of casting huge talents at the start of their careers, and they have excelled themselves here with an ensemble of fine singers.

The tunes are incredibly well sung, catchy and colourful, and guaranteed to make you leave the show with a cheesy smile on your face.

Who knew spelling could be such fun?

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs at the Drayton Arms Theatre until June 16.

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