The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee @ Donmar Warehouse

Written for Exeunt Magazine

A teenage cub scout is serenading me about an erection I’ve given him, the distracting qualities of which have made him crash and burn out of the first round of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Who knew that seemingly wholesome American musicals could be so raunchy? Clearly Tony Award winning Rachel Sheinkin whose sharp and occasionally filthy book injects some welcome edge into what is a sweet, if a little average, show.

Take note, audience participation – if that’s what you call my inanely grinning embarrassment – is actively encouraged. The judges, Rona Lisa Perretti (Katherine Kingsley) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (a very classy Steve Pemberton), pepper their witty improvised introductions of these intrepid audience spellers with the funniest of lines. Quite why Perretti is a sex bomb in a tight skirt is a mystery, as are Panch’s references to his Indian chief guide, but they make very amusing facilitators of what is a surprisingly cut throat event.

Six children are battling it out to get to Nationals. All are ‘unique’, all slightly strange; they are an eclectic bunch each with their own idiosyncrasies, quirks which for the most part border on caricature. The dreamy Leaf Coneybear and the lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (whose surname is her dads’ names mashed together) are particularly delightful and imaginative creations. But this level of cartoonish exaggeration places too high a barrier between the characters and the audience and in the end it is impossible to feel more than a vague feeling of fondness for these broadly-drawn children. The audience is never put in a position where they might actually start to care about their plight.

The closest to emotional engagement the production offers are Hayley Gallivan and David Fynn as dictionary-obsessed Olive Ostrovsky and ‘magic foot’ speller William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay, dontcha know). Both independently and during their charming duet, these two nudge slightly ahead of the rest of this cast of energetic comedians, and at points actually tweak the heartstrings.

Director Jamie Lloyd and choreographer Ann Yee jazz up an inherently static situation with sequences of movement that all click very nicely together. If the whole thing smacks slightly of ‘musical by numbers’, there are enough smart and funny moments to keep the audience happy. William Finn’s musical numbers are however distinctly pedestrian with lyrics so ‘everyday’ and unmemorable that they leave one puzzled that someone has bothered to graft song and dance to them at all. His melodies meanwhile splash around in the shallows resolutely refusing to lift off.

As such this Bee never quite takes flight, no matter how much the adorable cast pump into it or how many pompoms, twirling tables, chorus numbers or ribbons on sticks Lloyd and Yee throw into it. Affectionate and fun-filled it may be, but this musical comedy never quite surpasses the sum of its – undeniably perky – parts.

Runs until 2nd April 2011

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