This warm and generous production of a much-loved musical would benefit from heightened pace
The division of people into winners and losers seems a particularly American predilection, one that has only worsened in the age of Trump. It has made the little musical that could, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, more relevant than ever; this is a show that mines the terror of failure, the pain and awkwardness of being an outsider.
The nerd spectrum is well and truly covered by the six kids competing for the title of champion Putnam county speller. The overweight, the lispers, the unloved all shed their schoolyard personas just enough to contemplate the prospect of coming out on top for once. No one is demonised in Rachel Sheinkin’s book – this is another of those rare shows with no villain – so the outcome is rather like one of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins; the characters may care who wins but the audience certainly doesn’t.
Not that there aren’t pleasures to be had in the competition. The musical has a loose, improvisational structure and incorporates four audience members into the first act, which allows for some hilarious and unpredictable surprises. References are kept up to date, and many sharp lines fly about, but the tone is largely warm and generous.
Vic Theatre Company’s production is fresh and energetic, and the cast are uniformly excellent. Andrew Hondromatidis brings a lovely confident dignity to the slovenly, sinus-challenged Barfee, and Caitlin Mathieson is a poignant and upbeat Olive Ostrovsky. Sage Douglas is a jittery, frighteningly determined Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, and Rebecca Moore is terrific as the phlegmatic compere Rona Lisa Perretti.
No one is weak, but most memorable of all is Henry Brett as the dim-witted and delightful Leaf Coneybear. He manages to elevate a blatant stereotype into a winning and heartwarming portrait of kindness and humility. It’s pitch perfect.
The production design [William Bobby Stewart and Zoe Felice] is fully realised, appropriately tacky and overly bright, fraying at the edges. Director Benjamin Giraud does a solid job of keeping the train on the tracks, but the show could do with more pace. One of the songs is entitled ‘Pandemonium’ and it is a sensation that is lacking here. A little more madness, a little more desperation, and we’d all be winners.
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