Talk about playing mind games with words. Seventeen years after MTC staged this Tony Award winning musical comedy, Saltpillar Theatre has brought it back to tickle our funny bones again. It is, indeed, hilarious, more than a touch silly and really fun, but not without pathos.
All the young contestants in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are flawed. They are quite the collection of odd bods and brains. They gather in a school gymnasium to try to spell some of the most difficult and obscure words in our language. The show takes a heartwarming look at the pressures of growing up through the eyes of six quirky youngsters. Another four are thrown into the mix, chosen from the audience before the show … and that adds its own charm.
The competition to be crowned wordsmith extraordinaire (in other words, Spelling Bee champion) and go on to compete at the Nationals is fierce. Just one letter out of place or misspoken and participants are sent packing, as one-by-one they are. These are kids who feel enormous pressure from their parents to succeed or, at the very least, perform well. Never mind the burden they place on themselves. They have hang-ups and idiosyncrasies; they are awkward physically and socially.
Logainne Schwarzandgrubenniere (Olivia Harrison) has a lisp and two overbearing dads, one of whom in particular has a win at all costs attitude. She spells out words on her arm before pronouncing them aloud. Facially disarming, William Barfee (Itai Franco) uses his foot to formulate the words before he enunciates them.
Confident Marcy Park (Kiria Clemans), who speaks six languages and skipped two grades at school, is well used to being the smartest kid in the room. Charlito “Chip” Tolentino (Jesse Ermer) is upright in more ways than one when he takes a shine to an audience member. Perennially shy Olive Ostrovsky (Eliana Morris) doesn’t have the $25 entrance fee. Her dad is at work late, as usual, and her mum is “finding herself” in an ashram in India.
Colourfully dressed Leaf Coneybear (Jasper Sherman) makes his own clothes and turns into a demonic spirit when he spits out his letters. This is a musical in which to expect the unexpected. Even Jesus appears. Palmer Rosenberg fills that role, as well as playing Carl, the more gung-ho of Schwarzandgrubenniere’s fathers. The other is Dan (Jarod Rhine-Davis), who is also cast as Olive’s dad.
The MC is a former competition victor, Rona Lisa Peretti (Gabi Bergman), now a successful real estate agent. Posing the questions is injudicious vice principal Douglas Panch (Gregory Frid). He returns after a prolonged absence, being an unfortunate incident at the 20th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
The contestants are carefully monitored by “comfort counsellor” Mitch Mahoney (Kailey Silver), who is undertaking community service. She sends off the “losers” with a pat on the back or a hug and a juice box. The 11-strong cast is accompanied by a lively five-piece band. With an undoubtedly strong and impressive group dynamic, laughter abounds.
Credit to director Russell Fletcher, choreographer Kailey Silver and musical director Matan Franco. Costuming is by Dani Harrison. Vocally, Gabi Bergman and Kailey Silver excel. The characters are a delightful and eclectic mix. I particularly warmed to the ungainliness displayed by Itai Franco and Eliana Morris, but frankly all performed with zest and polish.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee originally opened off Broadway in 2005. It was an instant hit, prompting its move to Broadway, where it ran for nearly three years. It was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics from William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material from Jay Reiss.
In 2023, it remains an inspired piece of amusing musical theatrical entertainment, to which Saltpillar Theatre has done justice. With a running time of two hours including interval, it is playing at Phoenix Theatre in Elwood until 29thOctober.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- School of Rock: The Musical (Her Majesty’s) – theatre review
- Bring It On, The Musical (touring) – theatre review
- In Bed with the Bishops (Phoenix) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.